Public Records Access Causing a Political Uproar in the Media

Real mug shotsYour personal information is in high demand with the news media, who seek to profit from its use in various ways. The mainstream news media is not so interested in “reporting the news” any more as it is in “making money from publicizing information”. Two recent public records furors illustrate just how severe the problem is becoming.

The state of New Jersey is only the latest to vote to restrict access to mug shot pictures, especially by so-called “mug shot Websites” that make money by publishing the arrest photos of tens of thousands of citizens. New Jersey lawmakers want to prevent mug shots from being used for commercial purposes (and exploitative purposes) before the arrestees have been convicted of any crimes.

News organizations, who sometimes generate large numbers of visits to Websites with “mug shot pages” have protested the government’s concern for citizen privacy. Putting their profits ahead of their responsibility to report news and protect citizen interests, the news media are demanding that lawmakers leave the current “humiliation cash cow” alone.

News organizations are struggling to stay in operation. As daily subscribers for printed media continue to decline, old-fashioned newspapers are turning to online revenue sources for income. Many news organizations have implemented paywall barriers to their content, publishing only teaser articles or excerpts from articles before asking visitors to subscribe for access to more news. But because consumers can usually find the same news for free elsewhere, news media sites still have to rely on advertising for revenues.

And advertising revenues are falling, according to all the latest reports. As the glut of advertising-laden content floods the Web, advertisers find more and more opportunities to publish their ads at lower prices. The financial distress of the news industry undoubtedly plays a role in the unsound political decisions of organizations like The Guardian and the New York Times in releasing highly classified information about government efforts to track down terrorists around the world; the information, stolen by the traitor Edward Snowden from the National Security Administration, has alarmed normal citizens who don’t understand that the Internet was never a medium designed for privacy and intelligence workers, who are watching their carefully constructed programs unravel in front of Al Qaeda’s gleeful eyes.

Meanwhile, the news media is also exercising its obligation as the so-called “fourth estate” and investigating authorities’ use of public records such as scanned license plate numbers. In Boston a program to scan license plate numbers has been found deficient and the police are answering some hard questions. But the media are so intent on getting answers that police officials stopped responding to requests for more information while they have been investigating the effectiveness of their program.

Most if not all major cities in the United States now routinely set up cameras at intersections. These cameras may be used for traffic monitoring or they may be used to identify vehicles that break the law. In many high profile murder cases over the past 2-3 years, police organizations have been able to use video surveillance to identify and track criminals, including the two brothers who set up bombs for the Boston Marathon. There is no doubt that widespread video surveillance by the police has had an impact on public safety but the lack of standards and Federal regulations has led to a myriad of confused procedures and inexplicable failures.

More regulation by the federal government, of course, may not be the best answer. States and local law enforcement agencies should be able to cooperate in establishing standards for protecting citizen privacy and safety through existing channels. Mug shot policies could be adopted by all states that protect citizens’ privacy AND prevent or discourage the business of exploitation while allowing legitimate news organizations to show mug shots in honest news stories (not “mug shot pages”); and police procedures across the country can be normalized to improve interdepartmental communication while reducing the number of errors and oversights that fall through the cracks.

More importantly, citizen privacy should be protected against potential abuse by future exploitative industries. Government is charged with protecting the citizenry, not with creating new business models that exploit vulnerabilities in the system.