Apexart, a non-profit arts organization in Manhattan, hosted a panel “Digital Punishment and the Modern Mugshot” with activist Paolo Cirio and sociologist Sarah Lageson, on the subject of the digital publication of mugshots. Curator Elizabeth Breiner moderated this Sept. 7 panel, and the event was open to the public.
The digitalization of punishment has led to people’s mugshots being published on mugshot aggregator sites, including Mugshots.com. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and activists have tried to confront the release of mugshots through various legal and technical methods, but these aggregator sites still remain active.
Lageson explained that websites like Mugshots.com are allowed to exist because there is little “regulation or oversight” by the government and police agencies when it comes to the release of people’s mugshots and other personal information. After speaking to people whose mugshots were published on Mugshots.com, Lageson found that many individuals “had emailed the website or would try to call a lawyer” to try and get their mugshots removed because it hurt their personal and professional reputation, but they were unable to get their image taken down.
Cirio created the website Right2Remove. According to Cirio, Right2Remove removes sensitive personal information from search engine results and essentially “hijacks traffic from original” mugshot aggregator sites like Mugshots.com. Cirio said that Right2Remove also has a campaign that calls for Congress to put forth legislation to allow Americans to more easily remove sensitive information off of search engines.
“Often people have no idea that these images are on the internet, and it’s sort of a terrifying. Especially for people who were maybe arrested once in the 80s or 90s,” Lageson added.
In January 2019, Cuomo introduced legislation for a “mugshot ban” to combat mugshot websites. The reactions to the ban have been mixed.
“There’s been a lot of debate around the ‘mugshot ban’ in New York,” Breiner said. “Particularly from institutions like the ACLU who support the access of records for police accountability and for journalistic access.”
The New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had released a memo calling the then-proposed ban a “well-intended effort to secure the privacy of people who have been arrested” but called on legislators to reject it because the proposed legislation would hinder “public accountability.”
Both Cirio and Lageson expressed their support of the “mugshot ban,” but they also said that they do not believe that this ban is enough to confront the digitalization of criminality.
“We have no information about what happens in the [police] office when people are arrested,” Lageson said. “And yet we have the digitalization of court dockets, where I can read where people live and their charges, even if they were dismissed.”
Lageson pointed to a lawsuit victory in Bucks County, Pa. as a model for what other people and groups can do. Bucks County bought a software system to manage their inmates’ information at the county jail, including an online jail roster. Within a day, according to Lageson, the entire jail archive, from the 1930s to 2011, was published.
“Mugshots.com immediately attached an online screening tool to this county’s website,” Lageson said. Daryoush Taha, who was wrongfully arrested, sued Bucks County and the jail where he was arrested.
“A jury agreed with him and allotted 1,000 for each person published in that archive, so $67 million total,” Lageson said. “The county is appealing this decision, however, because that amount would bankrupt them.”
Beyond suing like Taha did in Bucks County, Cirio recommended that activists and legislators look to European Union laws as a model to better protect people’s privacy at the federal level. “One of these is the Right to Be Forgotten, which is legislation in Europe that allows people to remove some results from search engines,” Cirio said. Cirio explained that the Right to Be Forgotten legislation is a source of inspiration for his Right2Remove campaign.
While the digitalization of punishment is a somewhat new concept, Lageson explained that it connects to a larger issue within the criminal justice system with over-punishing people, whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.
“This brings into question how long we want to punish somebody, especially when it’s just an accusation,” Lageson said. “Now, an accusation can be incredibly long reaching. It doesn’t matter how small a crime is or how over-policed a neighborhood you happen to be walking through is.”