Mug shot websites have become a popular online blend of entrepreneurship and voyeurism. Using public data, site administrators can easily post photos of recent arrestees, then charge the same people a hefty fee to have their photo removed. The New York Times has covered this issue, but we asked experts to weigh in on the sites’ sociological significance.
Our respondents offer four viewpoints. Kate West explores theoretical perspectives of how viewing mug shots functions as a check on our own morality, while Travis Linnemann discusses the role of state power in how those in mug shots are policed and detained. Danielle Dirks draws upon her empirical work interviewing those who have been featured on these websites, and Naomi Sugie describes the tangible effects of having one’s arrest photo posted online. Taken together, these social scientists offer a nuanced view on a complicated issue of crime, safety, free speech, and personal privacy.
What do mug shot websites tell us about how criminal punishment works in today’s context?
Naomi Sugie (NS): At their basic level, mug shot websites operate by exploiting society’s long-standing fascination with crime and criminals. In today’s context, stigmatizing information is enduring and easily accessible to any person with an Internet connection. More importantly, search engines bring that information to the online user, without the user necessarily intending to seek out criminal justice evidence. Mug shot websites therefore publicize arrest information… [even to] acquaintances, potential clients, neighbors, or friends who searched for the person’s name, perhaps for some unrelated, innocuous reason. Because arrests are not reflections of criminal offending and are consequences of police decisions, individuals whose mug shots are publicized online are punished based on police officer discretion. For all of these reasons, the scope and nature of criminal punishment in today’s context has changed.
Travis Linnemann (TL): …First, these websites would likely not exist if not for the punitive urge to view, consume, judge, and mock the misfortune of others. This reveals the ways in which punishment escapes the courtroom and prison to saturate everyday life. Much like passing the scene of an accident, mug shots capture and represent crime’s horrific energies and aftermaths. This is particularly evident in Mugshots.com’s featured page “the world’s hottest mug shot” that encourages spectators to rate the “hotness” of arrested women. Its related site muggn.com purports to focus upon “interesting and funny mug shots.” While clear to point out “getting arrested isn’t fun,” muggn.com seems to prefer faces bloodied by arrest or accident, those who appear in awe and others who are simply in tears over those presumably less “fun” mug shots. Clearly, these images allow some to profit from the body, pain, and vulnerability of others.
Kate West (KW): Critics have argued these websites are punitive because they have the effect of incriminating an accused person before a court finds her guilty. However, the legitimacy of these arguments does not depend on the websites themselves, but on the premise that a person’s mug shot is in the public domain before a legal judgment is passed.Long before these websites, and even before the accession of mug shots in the 1890s by American police, mug shots were compiled into “rogues” galleries and exhibited to the public. Those who favor a “presumption of innocence” argument take issue with the publication of the mug shot, not the websites… Is there a feature that makes these websites stigmatize more, or even differently, than, say, the rogues galleries of nineteenth-century America? Part of the answer is their accessibility. Accessible anytime, anywhere, on a plethora of mobile devices, the subject of a mug shot is a potentially always-and-everywhere surveilled person; she is an affected, shamed, and stigmatized person. Today more than ever before, her “criminal” self is constructed by forces beyond her control.
Danielle Dirks (DD): The digital mug shot industry has commercialized the “criminal image” and profited from American penal policies that favor arrest and mass incarceration as frontline “solutions” to social ills such as poverty and drug abuse. As such, the mug shot industry can be viewed as a cottage industry assisting the criminal justice system in reaching its tentacles into other areas of society, creating a new so-called “criminal class.” Whereas we typically think of the mark of a criminal record (see Devah Pager’s work) as a felony conviction, today the “digital mark” of a criminal record created by the mug shot industry begins at the point of arrest. As such, arrestees can be treated as criminals (and discriminated against as such) even in the absence of guilt or a criminal conviction. The digital age has also ushered in a new era of “dataveillance” where the collection, use, and publication of public records is mysterious and unknown. The mug shot industry has capitalized on this, rendering new forms of punishment that are public, permanent, and potentially neverending.
DD: In my interviews with over 60 individuals across the U.S. who have had their mug shots posted online by third party websites, I have found that the large majority has been devastated—personally, socially, fiscally—by this information being posted. In the short term, they are mortified by what they perceive as a major privacy violation, they are angry that individuals are capitalizing on their mistakes, and they live in fear that their loved ones or employers will happen upon the information. In the long term, many of the individuals I interviewed were effectively removed from the labor market or marginalized from their jobs and careers, given the sheer number of employers who routinely scour the Internet when hiring.
TL: Websites like Mugshots.com reveal how the costs of arrest, imprisonment, and even banal police contacts are in many ways boundless. Today, a criminal record quite literally acts as a ghost that returns again and again, haunting the arrested at the cost of personal relationships, employment opportunities, and peace of mind. However, we should also resist fetishizing the image itself. The circulation and prevalence of mug shots for public consumption and private profit is clearly political, problematic, and dehumanizing—but critique must extend beyond the image. We must start from the political problem of state power and with the understanding that the mug shot is foremost a record of the actual capture of a human being. From this view, we need to link the actual coercive force produced by police capture and subsequent incarceration with the visual capture of the “criminal.”
KW: An arrestee who has her mug shot published online experiences humiliation, tied not to the function of identifying an arrestee, but to an invitation for a viewer to participate in symbiotic ritual of humiliation. The viewer encounters the image in what Alison Young calls an affective encounter. This encounter raises questions, like “Who is this?” “Why is she here?” and, “How does she make me feel?” The answers to these questions are often, “She is dangerous” and ‘”he is inherently bad,” and they constitute judgments of the arrestee, and affect humiliation. But most importantly, they are reflections of our own selves—our values, acquired through our own individual experiences. As a mirror, thus, the arrestee mug shot makes us learn something about our self—yet little about the image’s subject. The result? Individual humiliation comes as the expense for voyeurism.
NS: Online mug shots stigmatize individuals as criminal offenders, even if they are ultimately not charged or convicted of a crime. Mug shots are evidence of arrests, which are typically considered by researchers as minor forms of criminal justice contact. Several studies have found that arrests have few negative consequences …However, websites like Mugshots.com potentially alter the equation. The publicity of arrests through these online venues is stigmatizing and likely results in penalties across a variety of domains, such as finding work, applying for an apartment, and interacting with peers. Even though mug shots are not evidence of convictions, it is unlikely that potential employers, landlords, and peers will make the distinction.In the short term, people whose booking photos make it online might try to pay the websites large fees to remove the mug shots. The effectiveness of this method is unclear, since it appears that removing photos on one website spurs other websites to replicate the extortion-like tactics. In the long term, the evidence of arrest through these websites can persist online into perpetuity. This is a major difference compared to traditional uses of booking photos, where mug shots are temporarily posted through local newspapers and police/sheriff department websites.
What about right to access and publish public data? How do we balance privacy and the right to information?
TL: I understand the argument that restriction on free access of booking photographs may impinge upon the freedom of the press and the right of journalists to inform the public. However, I doubt that photographic evidence is necessary for the watchdog function of the press to function. Regardless, as it stands the vast majority of public use of these photos is for entertainment purposes.
KW: The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that mug shots constitute public records and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argues that the First Amendment protects a free-press right to publish public information. At present, their argument has won favor with the Supreme Court, trumping any claim to an individual right of privacy…
DD: The question about open access to public data is certainly a question that journalists and media companies are pushing back on, fighting restrictions on access to public records such as mug shots. Yet, we must question their motives in light of the dirty secret that so many American newspapers—desperate for page views and ad dollars in a new media landscape—use digital mug shots to drive traffic to their sites.
NS: The question about open access and privacy is complicated. On the one hand, access to public information is important for government transparency and in this case, public safety. At an individual level, it may benefit a person to know whether his or her neighbor was arrested for a crime. On a societal level, the shared experience of condemning violators and potential violators reaffirms the moral and legal legitimacy of rules and regulations. In this particular situation, however, websites like Mugshots.com hide behind false arguments of open access and government transparency. They are profit-driven enterprises that decide which records are publicly accessible based on who can and cannot pay to take down their information. Ultimately, these websites exacerbate already-troubling inequalities in punishment along the lines of race and class, where stigmatizing information persists for only the poor and least-advantaged individuals.
Should there be a policy or action taken against these websites? If so, what?
TL: What a great irony it would be to address this issue with yet another law enforced by police power—only to produce more mug shots! It seems to me the better option is to begin to cultivate an ethic and general cultural sensibility that flatly rejects this sort of punitive voyeurism. We can begin to do this by placing mug shots in context. That is, mug shots as discussed here represent the cultural afterlife of criminal justice evidence and as such, they are entwined with a brutal history of race and class domination. What is most often lost in the urge to consume the mug shot is that they document the literal capture and in many instances caging, of a human being. While the precipitating crimes are at times quite violent, we must also begin to recognize, confront, and contest the inherent violence of arrest and punishment—if we are to view the lives of others as anything more than entertainment, that is.
NS: There are several approaches that individuals, legislatures, and companies are taking against websites that make profits from mug shots removal. First, individuals have filed lawsuits, such as the Ohio case mentioned in the Times article. It appears that that case has been settled out of court and that the websites have agreed to pay settlements to the plaintiffs and to stop charging for mug shots removal.
Second, some states have passed legislation that specifies regulations around mug shots removal. If states go this route, I suggest that they follow Utah’s bill, which disallows websites to publish any mug shots of individuals if they demand payment for removal. Other states have introduced or passed bills that enable individuals to remove mug shots for free if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction. However, by allowing mug shot websites to make a profit off of individuals, even if they have been convicted, we condone financial gain at the expense of individuals who have already paid their debts to society as determined in a court of law.
Third, the Times article suggests that the moral repugnancy of charging high fees for mug shots removal has spurred informal policing of these websites, where Google and credit card companies have modified their roles in facilitating profits. All of these approaches may put pressure on the current business model of mug shots websites; however, as long as these websites remain interesting to the public, they will likely find other ways to make profits without fee removal.
KW: David Segal describes how different states have variously legislated to regulate constitutionally protected sites like Mugshots.com in his New York Times article. However, legal remedies are futile as a counter to and only regulate a constitutionally protected free press. We could turn away from the law to achieve what no legislator can. Segal describes how, for example, Google reduced the number of “hits” on websites like Mugshots.com almost instantly by simply changing its algorithm, thus reducing, if not potentially eliminating, the mug shot’s power to humiliate an individual.
DD: Since Google’s algorithm shift, several of my respondents have contacted me, thrilled after having a difficult time finding their mug shots, even pages-deep into a Google search for themselves. A few have shared they have found new jobs, ones they credit to the algorithm shift and their “restored” online identities. One respondent, though… called me a week later. Deflated, she told me, “Apparently there’s a thing called Bing and there I am for the whole world to see, all over again.” The fight to end the mug shot industry is clearly still an uphill battle—across the web—as the owners of these sites will work tirelessly to proliferate a business model some say is built on human misery.