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Privacy for sale? Why the state isn't protecting your information

Public information that could damage a person's reputation, posted online until you pay up. Maryland’s court system knows about it, but hasn’t done anything to stop it.

BALTIMORE (WBFF) -- Public information that could damage a person's reputation...posted online until you pay up. Maryland’s court system knows about it, but hasn’t done anything to stop it.

Crime and Justice Reporter Joy Lepola investigates: Your privacy for sale?

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In the United States you're presumed innocent until proven guilty. But in the court of public opinion just an accusation can be enough to do permanent damage: Embarrassing legal problems that some people are willing to pay to have removed from the web.

FOX45 first told you about Richard last year. His speeding ticket showed up online after his mother googled their home address.

The website that posted the information is Atlas Public Records.

After visiting dozens of addresses based off information Atlas posted, it became clear many others were unaware that Atlas obtained their information and posted it.

Websites like Atlas use a software bot to scrape information from sites like Maryland’s Judiciary Case Search.

Maryland's court information doesn't show up in a Google search but once it's on a site like Atlas, the information is searchable -- and easily seen by whomever is looking.

Over the past four months FOX45 sent, on average, one email a week to the Maryland Judiciary asking for answers, since it's the court’s 'case search’ site Atlas is screen scraping.

Every request for an on camera interview was rejected.

The courts did say they knew companies were scraping their data but we were told the courts could do nothing to stop it, since the information is public record.

Online privacy is Attorney Anne McKenna's expertise. She says Atlas is using the publicly available documents in a way they were never intended to be used.

“The problem is they're using public records but they're taking advantage of a technology that has so outpaced the ability of the law to continue to protect the citizens,” McKenna said.

The findings of this investigation were shared with State Senator Jim Brochin, who sits on the Judicial Proceedings Committee.

“At the end of the day this is really extortion,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Other states have faced similar problems.

When consumers began to complain in Wisconsin, the courts invested in software called ‘Captcha,’ which is a way to test that it is a person at the computer, not a program.

Computer experts say while Captcha may not shut down Atlas' business, it can at least slow it down.

The Attorney General’s office says it tried to investigate Atlas but stopped because it couldn't find anyone employed with Atlas -- and letters to the company were returned.

The company’s website doesn't list a name or address and online records restrict that information from being shared.

After seeing how Atlas has been allowed to operate in Maryland -- at least one lawmaker is now getting involved.

“We’re in the process of drafting a letter to the Maryland Judiciary and asking them to put something on judiciary case search,” Brochin says.

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