In 2002, Jimmy Thompson was pulled over in Orlando, Fl. for driving with expired license plate tags and a suspended license. A minor crime as crimes go, but when police arrested and booked him, they did so under the name of James Thompson, a man with the same birthdate who was wanted in two counties for writing bad checks—a case of mistaken identity that would come to haunt him.
When Jimmy Thompson's mugshot was later posted by the website Mugshots.com, which was able to obtain it and thousands of other mugshots because they are public records, it included the bogus charges, tying him forever to crimes he had never committed every time that someone Googled his name. When he called the site to say that its information was incorrect, he was told he needed to pony up the $399 that Mugshots.com charges to take images down.
"They did not care that it wasn't even me," Thompson said. "They just wanted the money."
Stories like this made conceptual artist Paolo Cirio wonder if there was anything he could do to disrupt the shady business of posting mugshots. In providing data without context, mugshot websites present an unflattering and often false portrait of their victims, then extort them to delete the image and clear their name. Cirio hoped to do something similar to the websites themselves.
Cirio scraped upwards of ten million mugshots from the six most popular mugshot sites—MugshotsOnline.com, MugShots.com, BustedMugshots.com, Jail.com, Usinq.com, and JustMugshots.com. Then he mirrored the sites, creating .us versions to compete with the original .coms, but he warped his clones. He blurred the images and shuffled the names around so that the mirrored sites are nonsensical, making them useless as tools for anyone looking for information.
The blurriness of the images also speaks to how little you can actually know about a person from a mugshot. "Who is this person?" he said over the phone. "Is it a serious criminal or is it just an innocent person? All that kind of feeling is the story behind that picture."
The project, which launched in April after a year's worth of on-and-off work, is called "Obscurity." Cirio hopes to simultaneously raise awareness of the extortionist mugshot sites and render them less effective by outranking them in search results. Thanks to the search engine optimization techniques he employed, in some cases, like that of MugshotsOnline, the mirrored site now appears ahead of the original on Google. (We reached out to MugShotsOnline and several of the other sites for comment but did not hear back.)
Jimmy Thompson, who now has his own website and a petition to raise awareness about the issue, said that if projects like Cirio could help downlist websites like Mugshots.com in Google search results, it could play a significant role in a big fight.
People have tried to sue mugshot sites in the past, accusing them of extortion and violating privacy by portraying the pictured in a false light. After all, just because you were arrested doesn't mean you were ever actually charged with a crime. But the sites defend their right to post images that are part of the public record as protected by free speech law. Few of these cases have been brought to trial, and while two have settled, none of them have won. Several states, such as California, have made it illegal for websites to charge victims to take their mugshots down, but even in those states posting the images to begin with is still legal.
Cirio's work circumvents these obstacles by filling the space they occupy online with noise. He's one of the few doing anything to try to help people affected by the sites. Their plight seems to be mostly ignored, perhaps because people with arrest records are seen as less sympathetic victims. Even when the mugshot posting industry has come under scrutiny before—The New York Times wrote about the business in 2013— perpetrators easily slip back into obscurity, which frustrated Cirio.
"The issue was basically forgotten for years and years, and it was still going on," he said. "The websites are still there, they are still charging, and it actually got even worse in my opinion because now they can duplicate so easily."
In order to make his audience feel a sense of responsibility, the mirrored sites have something the originals don't: a pair of buttons beneath each mugshot that lets visitors vote on whether to keep or remove the photo, which is intended to place some blame on the viewer. Part of the reason these mugshot sites rank so high in their victims' search results in the first place is that many people visit and click on them. Cirio hopes his project will discourage that behavior.
Some victims have gotten in touch with Cirio because the sites have worked as intended, and they mistook one for the original mugshot site. Some people have requested he take their photos down. Cirio always complies and explains the project. At least one site, BustedMugshots, filed a takedown complaint with his web host, leading to the mirror site being removed.
Scott Ciolek, an Ohio attorney who has taken mugshot sites to court, said that work like Cirio's may be among the most impactful ways to get people to think about victims of these sites.
"It brings an issue to light that everyone keeps in their blindspot until it happens to them or someone they know," he said.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kristen is a technology reporter for Fusion. She enjoys tea, giraffes and the occasional app.