Researchers Present Findings on Online Criminal Record Websites

UPDATED: Nov. 20, 2012, at 11:55 a.m.

Two Harvard researchers charged that a website which catalogs mug shots and criminal records engages in racial profiling in its advertising—just before the founder of a different criminal records website made his first public appearance.

Director of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard Latanya Sweeney and Harvard Department of Government Fellow Adam Tanner have researched these websites while writing an upcoming book on online criminal records.

“What has changed is scope of sharing,” Sweeney said. “Years ago...limits of technology posed natural barriers to sharing and dissemination.”

Today, however, this information is rapidly spread online.

In their talk—subtitled “a tale of crime, betrayal, lust, race, and the internet”—Sweeney and Tanner alleged based on their research that Google searches for typically African-American names lead to negative ads posted by one of these criminal records sites, InstantCheckmate.com, while typically Caucasian names draw neutral ads.

For example, when Sweeney searched her own name, she saw an ad saying, “Latanya Sweeney: Arrested?” In contrast, a search for “Tanya Smith” produced an ad saying, “Located: Tanya Smith.”

Sweeney and Tanner’s research led them across the country in attempt to uncover the people behind these criminal records websites. Tanner traveled to Las Vegas to try to speak to an employee of InstantCheckmate.com.

“I told them what I knew about the racial profiling, and they said, ‘We can’t talk to you, you have to come back.’” Tanner said.

When Tanner finally met with the company’s call center manager, he said he was told, “I don’t care if you’re the Pope of Rome; you’re not welcome here.”

But at the event on Monday at which Tanner and Sweeney spoke in CGIS, Kyle Prall, the founder of similar site BustedMugshots.com, agreed to answer audience questions and accusations about his business.

Sweeney suggested that sites like BustedMugshots.com could qualify as using extortion tactics, since they demand payment to remove images. Prall affirmed that these public records are available to the public based on the First Amendment, justifying the practices of his website.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Nov. 28

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that InstantCheckmate.com charges a fee for the removal of mugshots from its online database. In fact, the website does not ask for payment to remove mugshots. The article also said that Harvard Department of Government Fellow Adam Tanner sought to speak to the founder of InstantCheckmate.com and reported a quotation which the founder said to him. In fact, Tanner sought out the company's call center manager, who said the quotation about the Pope.

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