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Controversial mug shot companies may have crashed sheriff’s website

Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Chicago Sun-Times
by FRANK MAIN

Controversial companies that vacuum mug shots from jail websites — then post them on their own websites and charge a hefty fee to remove them — might have contributed to the Cook County Sheriff’s inmate locator crashing, a sheriff’s spokesman said Tuesday.

The inmate locator serves the families and friends of nearly 12,000 people in the sheriff’s custody. The website, which is used to schedule visits, was sometimes crashing twice a week last year.

On Jan. 6, the sheriff’s office installed a “captcha” security tool on the inmate locator to prevent computer robots from gathering booking photos and other information from the website and overwhelming it.

“It was becoming an ordeal,” said Ben Breit, a spokesman for Sheriff Tom Dart. “It was because these ‘bots’ were overloading our systems. We had to do something about it. Obviously we don’t want people hacking in.”

Mugshots.com, one of the companies that posts booking photos, confirmed it uses computer robots to scrape data from the sheriff’s inmate locator.

“There is still data being collected from Cook County,” said Chase Johnson, a spokesman for the company, which he said is based outside the United States.

Johnson insisted the company’s robots weren’t crashing the sheriff’s website.

Breit said Cook County computer experts were unable to determine whether mugshots.com or similar companies have been gaining access to the sheriff’s inmate locator.

“There’s a possibility that the actions of sites like these were a contributing factor, but that’s not something we can prove,” he said.

To keep the heavily used website from crashing again, the sheriff’s office installed a security system that requires visitors to type a password of distorted letters and numbers. Humans can read the characters, which are designed to confuse computer robots.

But the security system hasn’t thwarted mugshots.com from obtaining data from the sheriff’s website, Johnson said.

“Any program can be written to get around anything,” he said. “I’m not saying that’s going to be done. I’m saying this is not a great solution for them.”

On mugshots.com, visitors can search for booking photos by name — or by categories such as celebrities, sports or gangsters. They also can view booking photos in the news. On Tuesday, the site featured two NFL players’ arrests.

Mugshots.com and similar companies have a business model that infuriates those whose booking photos are posted on their websites. They charge a fee to remove some photos — and refuse to delete others.

Mugshots.com, for example, refuses to unpublish booking photos of people arrested for a violent felony — even if the case is later dismissed or the defendant is found not guilty, Johnson said. The company will remove other types of photos, such as those for nonviolent misdemeanors, for a fee, he said.

Johnson said mugshots.com provides a valuable service by allowing people to check out the backgrounds of others they might want to date or go into business with.

But in January, Pinellas County, Fla., Sheriff Bob Gualtieri reacted to the mugshot industry by taking booking photos off his “Who’s in Jail” site. He cited mugshots.com, justmugshots.com and arrests.org as the basis for his decision.

“After visiting mugshots.com myself I saw that citizens were being charged anywhere from $399 to $1,700 to remove their booking photos from just that one site [and] I decided that it is more than a rip-off — it is extortion,” Gualtieri said in a statement.

Dart will continue to post mug shots because “we have to have a certain measure of transparency,” Breit said. The photos are removed from the inmate locator whenever a detainee leaves the sheriff’s custody, he said.



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