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Guilt by Google

by Jayson Hawkins

An extraordinary wealth of information is easily available if one only utters the magic word –  “Google.” The problem arises with the realization that though the Google-genie provides information, there is no guarantee that the information is accurate or fair.

Questions about truth and privacy inevitably accompany any consideration of the new digitally connected world, and there are few areas where these questions produce more troubling answers than in the realm of online criminal records. 

In the not-so-distant past, the maintenance of criminal records was the responsibility of the police agencies and courts that produced those records, but in the internet age, government sites represent only a fraction of the available criminal records online. Companies that specialize in brokering data pay government agencies and courts for bulk sets of arrest reports and other records, and the data are collated with other public records before being sold to background check services, consumer research companies, and sometimes even police agencies. There are apps that post updates about sex offenders in the neighborhood, and websites that put up recent arrestee mugshots charge a fortune to have the photos removed. 

The primary causes of this shift can be found in government’s lack of resources and the growing public obsession with information awareness. The problem is that private companies that capitalize on these causes do not operate like the government or share the motives of the public.

Private firms operate for profit, which means they seek to monetize the data they collect and generate traffic on their websites. 

These motivations lead to a variety of difficulties. Without the accountability expected of government, inaccuracies become common, and data sets proliferate across the web with no regard for privacy or truth. Publicly shaming arrestees before they are convicted, or sometimes before they are even formally charged, creates opportunities for extortion. 

Because these records hopscotch freely across the web, inaccuracies are nearly impossible to fix. Even if the original error is corrected, data companies are under no obligation to update files with the new information. Pursuing legal challenges requires lawyers and money, two things that people who have had interactions with police are less likely to have. The end result is that a casual search can produce a cascade of misleading or even blatantly false information –  essentially a phenomena called “guilt-by-Google.” 

These problems are encountered by numerous Americans in a variety of situations. A Minneapolis man with a single conviction from the early 1980s discovered that a background check labeled him with multiple convictions, including one for robbery in 1901 and even open warrants. He soon learned that even if he fixed the state police records that were the source of the data, there was no way he could compel the companies whose data had been used to deny him an apartment and several jobs to fix their records. 

Consider a Florida woman who was arrested but never charged after a disturbance at a night club. Her mugshot was posted on a website that demanded hundreds of dollars to take it down, and the record of the arrest still comes up in Google search results.

These problems are commonplace and predictable, but they are not the inevitable result of the information age. The growth of the criminal justice system and the accompanying growth of police records are the results of political choices, and those choices can be revisited as public awareness grows. The privatization and monetization of data can itself be policed, and companies that abuse or refuse to correct a person’s data can be held accountable. American firms are held to a higher standard in their handling of a person’s credit score than they are in relation to arrest records, but it need not be so.

The collection, privatization, and sale of data are human processes that do not need to be at the mercy of the technological innovation or the surveillance power inherent in the web. Europe has enacted regulations to restrict the public release of personal data, including arrest records, and all that prevents the U.S. from doing the same is political will. 




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