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Tampa Bay mug shot site draws ethical questions

April 10, 2009 | 12:10 pm

Mugshots-thumb

A new website that showcases mug shots of people arrested in several Florida counties is like a modern "Scarlet Letter."  Some privacy activists are condemning the site, but what's an alleged bad boy (or bad girl) to do?

Upon visiting Tampa Bay Mug Shots, visitors are shown five mug shot photos, each displaying the name and booking time of an alleged offender. All of this sits under a banner that reads "Meet 153 people who were arrested in the last 24 hours in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties." (The number of people fluctuates with how many were arrested in that time period -- usually going up during the weekends.)

Readers can then scroll through a timeline of head shots from the last 60 days, search by last name or ZIP Code, and filter detailed demographic statistics about arrests in the last 60 days. Clicking on a photo shows in-depth information about that arrestee, including height, weight, age, which county that person was arrested in and for what offense. There's also a link to the police website that shows the subjects' home addresses.

Looking through the photos is a sort of voyeurism, and users are coming in droves to peruse the directory of alleged lawbreakers. While the producers aren't releasing traffic totals, the site got 100,000 hits in the first three hours after its launch Monday afternoon.

Mug shots have long attracted lots of online traffic. The Times' celebrity mug shot photo galleries draw a large crowd of viewers, but shy away from showing private citizens.  The National Lampoon site set up a gallery of prostitute mug shots last year, supposedly as a joke.  That endeavor drew disdain from a Times blogger.

The Florida site is hosted at TampaBay.com, the online portal for the city's St. Petersburg Times newspaper. The Web application pulls feeds from publicly available police data and requires no regular human intervention, said Matt Waite, a news technologist for the newspaper who worked on the project.

"It has been running by itself for weeks," Waite said. "It's built to run itself, but that's not to say we don't monitor it intensely." Sometimes the script experiences errors, such as duplicate entries.

By allowing ads on the page, the company has turned the feature into a source of revenue -- nothing to sneeze at for cash-hungry newspapers.  And because the costs of ...

... server rental are minimal, even a modest stream of advertising revenue could spell profit, Waite said.

But this money comes at the cost of ethical controversy.

"I think it borders on journalistic malpractice!" wrote Nora Paul, the director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, on a listserv for computer-assisted reporters. "Journalism should be about putting important events in a community into context. This doesn't."

The product lacks corrections for those found innocent and doesn't provide context about individual crimes.

The editorial staff overseeing the project have taken precautions so that the data do not haunt the alleged criminals forever, Waite said. Every listing is hidden after 60 days from booking, and the developers have taken technical precautions to ensure that Google's search engine won't crawl and index the pages.

"I don't want the first result in Google to be our mug shot site," Waite said.

-- Mark Milian

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