Design

An Artist Blurs More Than 15 Million Mugshots To Protect Your Right To Privacy

by DJ Pangburn

May 6, 2016

Yes he’s liberated paywalled articles and turned spy bosses’ social media photos into street art. But Italian media artist Paolo Cirio reserves a special amount of disgust for mugshot websites. This ugly cottage industry of digital extortion is comprised mainly of six websites that publish mugshots, then charge high fees to have them removed—making no distinction between the severity of crimes or whether charges were later dropped. In the spirit of the Right to Be Forgotten campaign, Cirio has decided to turn his disgust into art, obfuscating mugshots by making them “dark” or camouflaging them through his latest project Obscurity.

To do this, Cirio employs a variety of tactics, from blurring images on his cloned websites to using SEO strategies to boost his pages’ rankings. To subvert a site like MugShots.com, Cirio creates a clone called Mug-Shots.us. (He’s done the same for the websites Jailbase.us, Usinq.us, MugShots.us, JustMugshots.us, MugshotsOnline.us and BustedMugshots.us.)

“When I came across the mugshot industry I was just shocked that it could be so widespread and legal,” Cirio told GOOD. As a European living in America, Cirio was struck by the huge differences between the European and U.S. regulatory systems supposedly protecting internet users. 

“I’ve always been researching the Right to Be Forgotten, and I was even more shocked when I started to find op-eds in major American newspapers trying to demonize it, and suggesting that the Europeans have a law trying to censor the internet, which of course is not the case ... It is an argument used to not let American citizens exercise their basic rights and [encourage] giant internet companies [to] exploit [their] personal information.”

I was just shocked that it could be so widespread and legal.

He believes America’s weak internet regulatory structure, as well as the country’s welfare and criminal justice systems results in the mass incarceration of poor people, who then get shamed for the rest of their lives online.

“This information abuse is wrong, because in most cases the individuals in the mugshots don’t have the resources to take down their humiliating pictures,” Cirio explained. “They can’t afford lawyers, nor can they pay the extortionary fee to remove their mugshots, or they might not even have access to internet because they are in prison.”

“The mugshots circulate online before any trial and therefore many individuals are exposed even if they are innocent,” he added. “Even if there are laws and resources that can be used to take legal action for taking down the mugshots, it might not be enough, because the owners and the servers of mugshot websites are often in other countries and anonymous, thus shielded legally. That’s why it really comes down to the responsibility of search engines to remove that kind of sensitive information.”

To clone the mugshot websites, Cirio created websites with very similar domain names. He then copied their logos and CSS layout, creating a very similar interface. For months, Cirio employed scrapers harvesting mugshots and data from original mugshot websites, and then saved that huge trove of data on a secret server. Cirio’s cloned websites are published through a public proxy server, shielding it from any attacks on the original harvested data. And all of the cloned websites can eventually multiply and be mirrored very quickly if mugshot websites were to try to take down Obscurity.

They can’t afford lawyers, nor can they pay the extortionary fee to remove their mugshots, or they might not even have access to internet because they are in prison.

To blur the mugshot photos, Cirio crafted a few lines of code that resizes mugshot images into small PNG files, then applies image filters using PHP 5.5 hundreds of times. The effect is at once aesthetically interesting, functional and, according to Cirio, uncontrollable.

“It took me several experiments to feel comfortable with the amount of blurriness and also the visual impact that the pictures could provide,” he said. “The computational power to process 15 million images is unaffordable for me, and so they are made on the fly when the individual profile is opened on the browser. It’ll take some months to have all the mugshots processed.”

Cirio’s algorithm also shuffles the individuals’ biographical data. It first finds the original data from the database Cirio assembled, then for each page of results, it sorts profiles by gender, race, and age. After completing this step, it then shuffles each individual’s name for each of the categories.

So, when a viewer of Obscurity sees a page of results, what they are seeing is each individual profile corresponding to someone else with the same location, gender, race and age. This means that within the same page of results, there is the individual’s original name and mugshot, but rendered unidentifiable because it’s been shuffled with a dozen other profiles.

“In the profile page of the arrested individual, all the data is maintained accurately, like color of eyes and especially the criminal charges, yet the names and mugshots aren’t the real ones,” Cirio said. “That’s to make public the data about the arrest without exposing the person arrested.”

While all of this is fascinatingly subversive on a technological and artistic level, Cirio’s pièce de résistance is using SEO tactics to drive down the respective mugshot websites’ page rankings by boosting his clones.

“When someone is looking online for a specific names of someone plus the keyword ‘mugshot,’ the search engines will provide the page and the picture of someone very similar, but not actually identifiable,” explained Cirio. “The more this project becomes popular and linked to on news articles, like this one now, the better ranking the cloned websites will have, while the original ones will tend to be pushed out from the search engine results.”

Cirio hopes that Obscurity will one day include a participatory element, so people can learn about and publicly discuss the process of making sensitive information available.

“The way information flow is managed in our age is really at the core of our democracy,” he said. “It shouldn’t be controlled only by companies and authorities—there should be a democratic process to let people decide what should be public or private, accessible freely or not.”

Cirio is serious about Obscurity proposing a form of Right to Be Forgotten that would be workable in America. While admitting that the campaign is a simplified version of Europe’s, it would suggest very basic categories of personal information that people should have the right to remove from search engine results, including information about minors, sexual orientation, and civil courts records.

The way information flow is managed in our age is really at the core of our democracy.

“For that I launched a petition to be addressed to the Federal Trade Commission and the Congress,” Cirio said. “It should be a nationwide bill to establish this legal right, not something like what exists now: a very fragmented piece of legislation, different in each state, which obviously doesn’t make sense because the internet is not [merely] federal.”

“My proposal is extreme, pushing boundaries with art, as eventually the democratic process becomes a popular jury open to everyone, where the people can judge to condemn or give mercy to those who have been arrested, by making public their information or removing it,” Cirio said. “Many forms of online shaming ... already ... expose people with bad social behaviors. It happens in any instant on Facebook and Twitter, or with rating AirBnB’s hosts and guests, and so on.”

“We will need to learn how to judge people online civilly,” Cirio added.

All images courtesty Paolo Cirio

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An Artist Blurs More Than 15 Million Mugshots To Protect Your Right To Privacy