AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There are around 70 million Americans with a criminal record. And most of them have had a mug shot taken, which Karen Duffin from our Planet Money podcast reports has led to a business opportunity that's proving to be harmful and difficult to stop.
KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Jacques Rivera served 21 years for a murder he did not commit. But even after he got exonerated, his mug shot remained online. He told the Chicago Tribune the mug shot posting still said he committed the murder and that he should still be in jail.
JACQUES RIVERA: It's scary. All I need is the wrong person to see it. That's all it takes, is one person. And it could change my life forever, just like the wrongful conviction did.
DUFFIN: Rivera's mug shot was on one of dozens of sites that post mug shots online and then charges people to remove them, often hundreds of dollars. These websites slurp up mug shots from government databases, which they can do because mug shots are a kind of public record. And often these mug shots are the first things that come up if you google someone's name, which causes big problems. It becomes much harder to find a job. More than 75 percent of employers google every candidate. It's also harder to date or even volunteer, even though a mug shot doesn't even mean you actually committed a crime.
SARAH LAGESON: A mug shot doesn't tell us much about the person who's arrested. It tells us a lot about who the police decided to arrest.
DUFFIN: This is Sarah Lageson, a sociologist from Rutgers. A huge chunk of people who are arrested are never charged or convicted. And the chances of getting arrested are much higher for black and Hispanic men.
LAGESON: If we, you know, have some trouble with the systemic and structure problems with who gets arrested, we should also have a problem taking the mug shots as sort of an indicator of who's dangerous.
DUFFIN: But posting mug shots for profit is a hard problem to combat because changes that restrict public records move you into First Amendment territory, which makes people like Adam Marshall nervous. He's from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
ADAM MARSHALL: If we start saying, oh, you can only, you know, have access to government information if you use it in a good way, that's, like, a really dangerous road, I think, to go down. What's important is that we deal with people who are trying to extort or abuse people.
DUFFIN: Marshall thinks there should be no restrictions. But a lot of people say, look; the Internet has weaponized this particular public record, so we need to find a compromise. Make mugshots available for journalists, but not at the top of a Google search. Google says they have tried to limit these sites, but it doesn't seem to have worked that well.
18 states have passed various laws to restrict the websites. But these laws are costly and difficult to enforce. The feds have made some progress. They now require you to make a special request to get mug shots. But the majority of mug shots taken are local, so a real solution would require thousands of small government agencies getting on board with a solution like Mitch Lucas'. He's the assistant sheriff in Charleston, S.C., and he thinks these sites are despicable.
MITCH LUCAS: Despicable is the only word I can of think to describe the people who do this.
DUFFIN: Charleston changed the code on their website to make it impossible for websites to slurp up their mug shots in bulk.
LUCAS: We put the robo-protection (ph). If they want to find them, they have to go through them, print each one of them one by one.
DUFFIN: Even if thousands of counties did follow suit, it would take a lot of time. So I suggested another idea.
Everyone in the country has to take an unflattering photograph of themselves and post it online with the worst thing they ever did (laughter).
DUFFIN: And then we're all even.
LUCAS: Well, I'm sure you'll have people jumping at the chance to participate (laughter).
DUFFIN: (Laughter) Karen Duffin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.