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Tracking Sex Offenders on Your Phone: Smart or Paranoid?

A hot new iPhone App uses GPS technology to track registered sex offenders everywhere. Are they keeping you safe, or profiting off paranoia?

For a few days this past August, one of the top ten most popular paid iPhone apps of the summer suddenly went missing.

The POM Offender Locator, a product of ThinAir Wireless, hit the scene on June 2, a nifty little way to keep track of registered sex offenders using GPS technology. ("POM" stands for "peace of mind.") The paid app, which cost 99 cents, provided the convenient capacity for "anyone living in the United States to view Registered Sex Offenders living in their area," according to its official description.

"Knowledge = Safety" it read, followed by the following sales pitch:

"They know where you and your family are … Now it's time to turn the tables so that you know where they live and can make better decisions about where to allow your kids to play."

The app, whose avatar features a creepy cartoon face with menacing eyebrows, quickly became one of the top-selling downloads of the summer -- the sixth most downloaded app on the iPhone by late July. It was written up by ABC, USA Today, and assorted techie blogs.

There was only one problem, it turned out: It might not be legal.

At least that was the impression of numerous users and online commenters. On the website TechCrunch, one person argued on July 25th, "This app is not legal, at least under CA law. Selling the personal information of people (even ex-criminals) for profit is forbidden."

This remark, along with other questions posted online concerning the legality of the POM Offender Locator, was evidently enough to alert Apple that there might be a problem with the wildly popular app. The company wrote to ThinAir Wireless warning that the sale and distribution of the POM Offender Locator might be unlawful in some territories. The paid app came down, with only the free version -- Offender Locator Lite -- remaining.

Less than a week later, however, the app was back, virtually the same as before, with a few differences. Among them: It no longer included data from the state of California. Also, now it cost $1.99.

Is It Keeping You Safe?

On August 15, a California attorney named R. Sebastian Gibson wrote a letter to ThinAir Wireless CEO Trip Wakefield in response to a request that he provide "a legal opinion letter as to the legality of the POM Offender Locator in the State of California."

Gibson advised his client that "the key here is not only to obtain [law enforcement] authorization to disclose the Megan's Law information" -- "Megan's Law" being the 2004 legislation behind the state's current sex offender database  -- "but also to obtain permission to disclose the information in the manner and scope your Application allows for it to be distributed."

In Gibson's legal opinion, this permission hinged on ThinAir Wireless's ability to convince California authorities that the primary purpose of the POM Offender Locator is to keep the public safe. Wakefield, he advised, should "obtain from the law enforcement agency a statement that the purpose of the release of information is to allow members of the public to protect themselves and their children from sex offenders and anyone who is or may be exposed to a risk of becoming a victim of a sex offense committed by a sex offender."

This should also be included in any product description or disclaimer, he wrote.

Reviewing California law shows this to be pretty sound advice. The state used to have strict limits on the dissemination of its records on sex offenders. But with the introduction of Megan's Law and its vast offender database, which includes profiles for some 63,000 registered sex offenders, these restrictions were rolled back the logic being that if it was good for public safety, it made sense to make such information public. The privacy rights of sex offenders largely dissolved, trumped by the right of the public to protect itself from them.

According to California Penal Code 290.45, "any designated law enforcement entity may provide information to the public about a person required to register as a sex offender … by whatever means the entity deems appropriate, when necessary to ensure the public safety based upon information available to the entity concerning that specific person."

However, according to Penal Code 290.46, "a person is authorized to use information disclosed ... only to protect a person at risk." Using the information on the Megan's Law website for discriminatory purposes such as the denial of health insurance, loans, credit, employment, education, housing or benefits is prohibited.