I'm working on a feature piece regarding the use of algorithms in the criminal justice system. One aspect that wont make it into the final draft is that online search algorithms play a role in all this criminal justice and technology work. Here is the excerpt that didn't make the final edit:
Online search algorithms also affect those with criminal records. Julie Cantu of Tampa, Florida found this out when a first date asked about her mug shot he found online. Cantu was arrested in 2010 after blowing below the legal limit during a field sobriety test, but she thought the issue was behind her after the charges were dropped and the record was expunged.
After the date, she found her mug shot with tear streaks running down her face on sites like MugShots.com, Tampacriminal.com and Arrestmugshot.com. These are not newspaper or crime blotter sites that are reporting on local crime. Cantu found herself in the mug shot racket, a series of websites, primarily hosted offshore, that exploit search engine algorithms and demand a fee to takedown pictures. After paying $175 to one site, she found her photo pop up on a different one.
Cantu says she worried that the photo was “going to be there the rest of my life,” which could affect her employment as a nurse.
Luckily for Cantu and the estimated 70 million Americans with a criminal record, Google, which accounts for 65 percent of U.S. search traffic, changed how their search algorithm serves results related to mug shot websites in 2011.
Johnathan Hochman, an Internet marketing consultant based in Connecticut, says that Google did not disclose how the algorithm was changed, but he suspects they “deindexed” mug shot websites, which means they do not show up in search results. Google did not respond to a request for comment.
At the time of publishing, Googling “Julie Cantu Tampa” did not bring up her mug shot on the first five pages of results. However, searching “Julie Cantu Mug Shot” immediately produced the photo.
While Hochman appreciates Google’s effort, he says, “It’s not completely perfect.” He thinks there is need for federal legislation banning the “depublishing” industry, which includes sites like MugShots.com but also revenge porn sites that operate similarly. Calling these sites “extortion”, he says it “is something completely new, and it should be illegal.”