Recently, I worked on a project that scrapes the county sheriff's inmate locator site as a roundabout way to get insight into where the delays occur in the local court system.

The photograph, name, age and other identifying information for each offender are available on this site. In this project, we decided that we didn't want to store this data about people who were all being held for charges, but hadn't been convicted of anything.

This data is a matter of public record, but the potential for harm in making it very easily accessible (i.e., via bulk download) did not seem worth it.

Are there standards that you use in your research and investigation about what kind of public information you make readily accessible to others?

  • It seems like you're asking about the legal, not ethical, boundaries about publishing specific (name, age, etc.) data; which seems off topic. – Kermit May 21 '13 at 2:04
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    I, on the other hand, think this is a good topic -- discussing the consequences of making one's own data open. – Roger_S May 21 '13 at 2:56
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    No, I'm asking about ethics. – fgregg May 21 '13 at 4:06
  • Not disagreeing this is an ethical question. It's just I think the ethics of making information that is already open (in the inmate-locator site) more accessible can't be disentangled from examining the consequences of one's own choices regarding open-ness. – Roger_S May 21 '13 at 20:54

The ethics of posting mug shot photos online has been widely discussed. Some links:

As it's the most recent, and as it's written by Matt Waite, who built the Tampa Bay mug shot site in the first place, I'll quote this bit from the "Source" article:

So before you write the first line of code, ask these questions: - This data is public, but is it widely available? And does making it widely available and easy to use change anything?

  • Should this data be searchable in a search engine?
  • Does this data expose information someone has a reasonable expectation that it would remain at least semi-private?
  • Does this data change over time?
  • Does this data expire?
  • What is my strategy to update or delete data?
  • How easy should it be to share this data on social media?
  • How should I deal with other people who want this data? API? Bulk download? Your answers to these questions will guide how you build your app. And hopefully, it’ll guide you to better decisions about how to build an app with ethics in mind.
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    Could you perhaps post relevant excerpts from each site in case the links go dead? – Kermit May 21 '13 at 15:01
  • i appreciate the spirit of the question, but I'm not going to synthesize all of them here... but I put in a good solid chunk from one article on your suggestion. – Joe Germuska May 21 '13 at 22:15
  • Link only answers should be avoided. This answer will become obsolete and not useful if the links go dead. – Kermit May 21 '13 at 22:21
  • This is an ethical question, not a technical question. It will probably become obsolete and not useful anyway. Furthermore, I posted a substantial chunk of content from the actual person who faced the ethical issues, and about whom the other two stories were written. Did you read them, or just complain reflexively about a link-only answer? – Joe Germuska May 24 '13 at 14:49

I believe the real test is if the increased accessibility drives the originator to stop publicizing the data. Without improved accessibility, how would users even know that "bad data" is even being published in the first place? By creating a feedback loop, I assert that you are also improving the accountability of the entire system.

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In our projects with data that could be sensitive and affect others, we will generally keep the data on our servers not so readily available, but will provide links to the publicly accessable data so they can find it themselves.

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Considering what happens when the public has a bad reaction to publicly released data done incorrectly, we should consider the ethics of publicizing open data.

For example, when a NY newspaper released a map of all the gun owners - a law was passed to un-open that data.

The voter file is public with everyone's name and address attached - but that's not well-known. If everyone in the country realized how easy it is to get all those names and addresses, I wonder what the reaction would be. My guess is not good.

I do think that there's a line where your actions should be public knowledge. For example, when I apply for a liquor license or when I lobby a city official. When I preform an action that affects the public space (opening up a bar or trying to influence the political process) - there should be an expectation that my actions are public (with no expectation of privacy).

However, in the case of the original poster (I'm arrested, but not convicted) - I don't think that my mugshot, name and birthday should necessarily be open.

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