There's a minor industry of websites that publish mugshots and monetize them by charging a picture removal fee, or by placing advertising alongside the listed booking data. The mugshot websites can charge several hundred dollars for the picture removal, regardless of the crime, time spent, or if charges were later dropped. Some mugshots might profile serial killers or sex offenders, but others highlight minor offenses, like driving without a license or misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. Artist Paolo Cirio, who has made graffiti out of spy bosses’ Facebook photos and liberated 60,000 pay-walled articles, has now set his sights on these mugshot sites.
A hybrid art and social justice project, Cirio’s Obscurity uses an algorithm to take 15,000,000 mugshots of people arrested in the U.S. and obfuscate the criminal records of mugshot websites by cloning them and “shuffling” their data. The sites’ visitors can also participate in the project by judging an arrested individual and deciding to keep or remove their data from the mugshot websites.
“Beyond the use of criminal records for the social experiment and the performative hack, the artwork promotes a legal Right to Remove personal information from search engines,” Cirio explains on the Obscurity website. “The Obscurity artwork deployed strategies that are oriented to problem-solving as a form of Internet social art practice. The installation displays prints of mugshots from significant incarceration cases, such as the youngest and oldest individuals in the dataset of the artwork.”
Cirio tells The Creators Project that the algorithm created for obfuscating the data ensures 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, then shuffles their first and last names along with their respective images. The algorithm maintains other inaccurate details about the individuals, including charges and the location of the arrest.
Cirio’s 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 versions with scrambled records. The republished “obfuscated” data maintains the layout and watermarks of the original mugshots. By using similar domain names, Obscurity effectively interferes with the activity, reputations, and businesses of mugshot websites. So, a site like MugShots.com gets obfuscated and subverted by Cirio’s Mug-Shots.us. This site is only one of six such clones.
“I always wanted to do a project on the Right To Be Forgotten—I see it as subject that has much to be discussed, and as artist and internet activist I could contribute to,” Cirio says. “The publication of mugshots looked the right way to poke on the issue, and meanwhile I could document a gross human abuse from the consequences of mass incarceration.”
“I also got very interested in the mugshot websites when I noticed that they stand in capital letters for the right to keep the public informed to find the truth, the right to know, and access of information for public safety,” he adds. “Something that produces an interesting conflict with the right to privacy and also monetization of that sensitive information.”
Alongside online abuses like revenge porn and online bullying, Cirio sees these mugshot websites as another example of the information abuse on the internet. In the cases of these mugshots, individuals aren’t even able to do anything to remove their humiliating pictures because of lack of internet access, or even the funds to pay the site’s removal fee.
“I think there is quite a bit of generalization and confusion about the notions of privacy, anonymity and transparency,” Cirio says. “We are all entering a new civilization where information about people can be so quickly accessible that we don’t even know how to handle that. There is a higher degree of social complexity that we are learning how to navigate.”
“In my opinion, it can’t be simplified by offering tools for anonymity or making everything public,” he adds. “That is true also in the law. On introducing a form of ‘Right To Be Forgotten,’ legislators are lost between the fixative norms of the First and Fourth amendments, and they struggle to respond to the demand for new civil rights concerning information and algorithm ethics.”
While Google has removed some mugshots websites, a keyword search of a name and surname of a person with a criminal record will return that record and a mugshot. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has publicly expressed disagreement with the EU’s “Right to Be Forgotten” law. Cirio recommends that new policies, education methods and social norms be built to improve the internet experience.
“The U.S. is very behind on privacy policies—[and] only in one state, California, is there a law that allows the deletion of data on minors published on the Internet,” Cirio says. “We shouldn’t forget that Google is the company spending more money ever in lobbying the U.S. Congress, more than Wall Street and oil companies. So even I have to admit that my attempt to launch a petition for the Right to Remove personal data from search engines will be probably a vain attempt.”
The Creators Project has reached out to a few mugshot websites for comment. Stay tuned for updates.
Click here to see more of Paolo Cirio’s work.