Obfuscating 15M US Criminal Records and Mugshots for the Right to Remove Them
Figure 1: Obscurity installation view
About the Artwork
Control and access to information, the right to privacy, mass surveillance and profiling, and the system of participation within social dynamics are explored in this socio-critical Internet artwork. Ultimately, the project questions the legal frameworks surrounding public policies on privacy and profiling of citizens and engages the public in a debate about them.
By engaging with law, millions of individuals, bad business practices, and general public opinion, Obsurity seeks to embody a practical discourse about the aesthetics, functions, and ethics of information systems affecting social structures that resonates within and outside the contemporary art dialogue.
This artwork is made with millions of mugshots, obtained through a screen-scraping software, from websites such as Mugshots.com, Usinq.com, Justmugshots.com, MugshotsOnline.com, etc. This project has cloned these mugshot websites using similar domain names and then shuffled the data associated with the individuals listed to obfuscate their identities.
The algorithm created for obfuscating the data makes sure that an individual’s name and picture are never associated with the actual person arrested. It scans for individuals with a common gender, age, race, and location and shuffles their first and last names along with their respective mugshots, while maintaining accurate all the other details about the individuals, including charges and the location of the arrest.
Then the algorithm republishes this data on the open web using search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to boost the search rankings of the cloned websites and promote the version with the scrambled criminal records. The republished obfuscated data maintains the layout and watermarks of the original mugshots, and by using similar domain names the project would effectively interfere with the activity, reputation, and business of mug-shot websites.
Figure 2: Obscurity detail
About the Publication of Mugshots in the U.S.
Mugmshot websites have been exposing tragic photos of people who have been arrested regardless of the amount of time spent in jail, often just for minor offenses, or even if they were later found to be innocent or the charges against them had been dropped.
These websites are designed to embarrass and shame since searchable booking photos can effectively ruin someone’s reputation with social stigmas and attendant prejudgments in their communities, families, and workplaces, especially when they are seeking employment, obtaining insurance or credit. These mugshots are often of the most vulnerable members of society: victims of mass incarceration, economic inequality, and racial discrimination, along with those who lack treatment for mental illness, in a country with poor welfare policies, coupled with a severe criminal justice system and unforgiving law enforcement agencies.
The online mugshots problem came to public attention in 2013. Since then, the number of these websites has multiplied, and existing websites continuously change their brand name in order to keep collecting and monetizing on mugshots. The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. Every year in the U.S., city and county jails across the country admit between 11 and 13 million people. Approximately 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S. Of those in jail, 60 percent haven’t been convicted of anything. Of the non-convicted defendants behind bars, 75% of them are held on non-violent offenses.
The publication of booking photos online is legal under the freedom of information and transparency laws in most U.S. states. Furthermore, many freedom of press organizations and legislators have been opposing bills that would regulate the publication of mugshots. Already many federal bills related to mugshots have failed or have been pending for years.
Mug-shot websites monetize by placing advertising for reputation management services alongside booking data, and they often charge a picture removal fee. The controversial request for payment to remove mugshots has led some state legislatures to propose bills to regulate the industry to comply with the right-of-publicity statute, which gives individuals some control over the commercial use of their name and likeness. They also violate extortion laws since removal and online reputation services can charge thousands of dollars to remove mugshots. However, some mug-shot websites operate in offshore jurisdictions and their owners are in hiding , which makes difficult any kind of legal and effective action to remove the mugshots and crack down on extortionary practices such as demanding a fee to stop their dissemination online. And yet, the simple publication of mugshots across the Internet still hasn’t been regulated nationwide in the U.S.
Search engines such as Google are complicit as they could do what no legislator could—demote mugshot sites and thus reduce, if not eliminate, their power to stigmatize. Commercial search engines collect and exploit as much information as possible in order to monetize on data analysis and brokerage and sell it to advertisers. Any information taken out from search results might affect a search engine’s profit, and as such they will always oppose and slow down any removal of personal information from their datasets. The core business model of most search engines that profile people is often unscrupulous by design.
About the Participation of the Public
A participatory element of the project allows anyone to both judge typical criminal case scenarios sampled from the database and send a complaint to search engines and mug-shot websites. The visitors of the cloned mugshot websites, as participants of the online artwork, are able to decide whether to report individual profiles or instead keep them public by opting between two buttons: “Keep it” or “Remove it,” which automates the sending of removal requests of individual mugshots to search engines as complaints for the publishing of unethical content and activity.
The main goal of the project Obscurity is thus to report all the URLS of the mugshot websites and advocate for statewide regulation on the publication of court information. More specifically, Obscurity proposes to keep all the information on civil cases filed in courtrooms and in law enforcement offices on web platforms that require registration to ensure that only qualified professionals are able to access certain data.
 Nick Pinto, “The Bail Trap,” New York Times, August 13, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/magazine/the-bail-trap.html
 Chandra Bozelko, “The cash bail system should be eliminated rather than reformed,” Guardian, February 5, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/05/the-cash-bail-system-should-be-eliminated-rather-than-reformed
 “Mug shot publishing industry,” Wikipedia, last modified January 14, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mug_shot_publishing_industry
 “Mug Shots and Booking Photo Websites,” National Conference of State Legislatures, December 11, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/telecommunications-and-information-technology/mugshots-and-booking-photo-websites.aspx
 “Lawsuit goes after ‘extortion’ mugshot websites,” WCPO Channel-9 Cincinnati, February 13th, 2013. http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/lawsuit-goes-after-extortion-mugshot-websites
 David Kravets, “Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again,” Wired, August 2, 20111. http://www.wired.com/2011/08/mugshots/
 Natasha Del Toro, Dan Lieberman, and Rachel Schallom, “The Digilantes Try to Find Out Who Is Behind Mugshots.com,” Fusion, February 9, 2016. http://fusion.net/interactive/252451/digilantes-mugshots-dotcom-investigation/
Stay in Touch
We'll send occasional announcements about conference details and follow-up initiatives.
International Program and Organizing Committee:
Paul Ashley, Anonyome Labs Benoît Baudry, INRIA, France Finn Brunton, New York University Saumya Debray, University of Arizona Cynthia Dwork, Harvard University Rachel Greenstadt, Drexel University Seda Gürses, Princeton University Anna Lysyanskaya, Brown University Helen Nissenbaum, Cornell Tech & New York University Alexander Pretschner, Technische Universität München Reza Shokri, Cornell Tech