• Editor's Note
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 • In Memoriam: Gail Burns-Smith
 • Deconstructing Deviance: They’re all deviant except for you and me, and I’m not so sure about you
 • iVigilante? Public Disclosure and New Technology
 • Everywhere It Matters:
Working at the State Level to Influence Public Policy
 • The Established (but still evolving) Internship at the Shiloh Program
 • Vicarious Trauma: What are the protective measures?
 • The Interactive Self Management Plan:
Picking Up Where Programs Leave Off
 • Book Review: Assessment and Treatment of Sex Offenders: A Handbook
 • Book Review: The Other Side of Desire
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Vol. XXI, No. 4
Fall 2009
iVigilante? Public Disclosure and New Technology

Sexual offenders, especially child sexual abusers, are one of the most vilified groups in modern society, as such being the subject of an ongoing moral panic and social concern (Cohen, 2003; Critcher, 2002; Silverman & Wilson, 2002; McCartan, forthcoming). Sexual offending is an ongoing life-course issue for the offender, which is more about rehabilitation and reintegration than punishment and exclusion. However, there are still important public safety and social order concerns around sexual offender release and management. One of the main mechanisms for monitoring and managing sexual offenders in the community is the sexual offenders register, which exists both in the America and the UK, with the public having access to the register in America, but not in the UK. This piece will discuss public disclosure, or naming and shaming, and how this has adapted with new technology, especially the iPhone. The iPhone has a number of news applications[1] that allow the user to identify and track sexual offenders locally and nationally, but there are potential legal, moral, social, and even risk management issues.

The issue of how to deal with sexual offenders is a complex one, resulting in a difficult balancing act between offender management, offender rehabilitation, public protection, and victim support. As a group, sexual offenders tend to be sometimes more in need of rehabilitation than punishment, but the government and the public do not often see it in these terms. Despite this, the bigger issue is what to do with sexual offenders, especially child sexual abusers, in the community? This is particularly important in the modern climate where responses to sexual offending have been likened to a moral panic, in addition to being a major public protection and social policy issue. The main way of monitoring sexual offenders in the community, both in the America and UK, is through the sexual offenders register, to which all convicted sexual offenders (including non-contact offenders) must sign up. However, the main difference between the UK and American sexual offenders registers is that the register in America is accessible by the public, as a result of Megan’s Law (Fitch, 2006). In the UK, following the abduction, sexual abuse, and murder of Sarah Payne in 2000, the News of the World (a weekly Sunday tabloid) ran a ‘Name and Shame’ campaign to convince the government to implement Sarah’s Law, the UK version of Megan’s Law (Thomas, 2005; McCartan, forthcoming). Despite the News of the World campaign and a certain degree of public pressure, the UK government was originally unconvinced regarding the potential usefulness of public disclosure of sexual offender information, believing it would cause more harm than good (Plotnikoff & Woolfson, 2000). However, the government’s opinion on the viability of this controversial law has changed in recent years, with the government moving from initially rejecting Sarah’s Law (Dodd, 2000, July 24; Morris, 2000, July 31), to reconsidering (BBC, 2006, June 19; Assinder, 2006, June 20), and agreeing to implement it (‘Sarah’s Law to Start in Months, , 2007, April 9, The Sun), before again rejecting it (Travis 2007, April 11), and finally deciding to pilot a partial public disclosure scheme, with the hope of full implementation if the pilot is successful (BBC, 2009, July 19; Home Office, 2007; Home Office 2009). The government has also shown pro-Sarah’s Law leanings through the online publication of sexual offender information by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP—Johnston, 2006, November 11).  It seems that the UK government, unlike their American counterparts, has reached no cohesive and/or coherent decision on the implementation of public disclosure and, although the current perspective seems to be anti-full public disclosure (Travis, 2007, April 11), this does not mean that a change in government, a shift in public opinion, or a high-profile paedophilic crime could not change current policy. 

Figure 1:
‘Offender Locator’ (‘Offender Locator’, 2009, August 4, Apptism.com) and ‘Offender Locator Lite’ (Offender Locator Lite’, 2009, August 4, Apptism.com) iPhone app icons

Despite government and policy fluctuations, research indicates that locations which do not publicly disclose of sexual offender information tend to have better rates of sexual offender registration (Plotnikoff & Woolfson, 2000; Fitch, 2006); as public disclosure can result in a fear of vigilantism and sexual offenders going underground (Fitch, 2006).  However, interestingly, research also indicates that the public disclosure of sexual offender information, both the full version in America (Fitch, 2006) and the UK pilot version (Home Office 2009), is underutilised (Fitch, 2006; Pawson, 2002).

Figure 2:
Sex Offender Search iPhone app icon (‘Sex offenders Search’, 2009, August 4, Appadvice.com)

Sexual offender notification in the America is now provided and updated though the internet, which means that with new developments in computer and mobile technology the public are better placed to directly access it. The iPhone is one of the most popular mobile phones on the market (Apple, 2009a); although, it seems to be more of a mini-laptop than a mobile phone, with internet capabilities as well as other high-end technological specifications (Apple, 2009b). Evidence indicates that the purchase and use of the iPhone is well spread across different age groups (‘iPhone Users Watch More Video… and are Older than You Think’, 2009, June 10), with it growing in popularity both inside and outside the America (Apple, 2009c). One of the main features—and main selling points of the iPhone—is the consumer’s ability to acquire applications (“apps”). Apps are electronic programs designed to make the iPhone more interactive, with these apps being fun, factual, or practical. iPhone apps are either free or can be purchased, for a minimal fee generally between $1 and $5, and downloaded directly onto the phone to be used straight away.

 

Figure 3:
The ‘Watchout! For offenders’ iPhone app icon (‘Watch out!’, 2009, 12 August, Msimplicity.com)

Recently, a number of new iPhone apps have been released with the aim of helping the public to monitor sexual offenders. These are the ‘Offender Locator’ (see figure 1), which is available in either free (but limited) or paid versions ($1) (figure 1; see ‘The top 10 iPhone apps’, thumblounge, 2009; ‘Offender Locator’, 2009, August 4, Apptism.com; ‘Offender Locator Lite’, 2009, August 4, Apptism.com); the ‘Sex Offenders Search’ ($1.99) (figure 2; see ‘Sex Offenders Search Now Available For the iPhone and the iPod’, 2009, August 3, einnews.com); ‘Watch out! For Offenders’ (free) (figure 3; see iTunes, 2009; ‘Watch out!’, 2009, 12 August, Msimplicity.com) and a suite of apps under the Staysafe title (‘Staysafe Personal’, $14.99; ‘Staysafe’, $14.99; ‘Staysafe Lite’, free) (Figure 4; see ‘stay safe’, 2009, August 10, staysafe.handstorm.com/). These apps allow all American citizens to locate and identify registered sexual offenders living in their, or any other, area. The app checks the "Registered Offender Databases" then identifies the offenders’ accommodation via the GPS function on the iPhone, presenting the information as a map with the different sexual offenders presented as pinpoints (see Figure 5). Then, the person can click on the different pins in the map to see a picture and offense summary of the sexual offender in question (Figure 6). The map also tells you how close a sexual offender’s location is from your current location or home (Heussner, Berkowitz & Potter, 2009, July 28). This is made more problematic because of the other technical aspects of the iPhone, including the ability to copy/paste text and the GPS powered map app (Apple, 2009b). Consequentially, an individual can download one of the sexual offender identification apps, check for sexual offenders in their area, select a sexual offender and download their location, picture, offence history and then using the GPS/maps functions on the iPhone, get directions to the offender’s house. Interestingly, these apps can be purchased on the international market, for instance the current author downloaded the ‘Offender Locator Lite’ app in the UK, even though there is no publically available sexual offenders register in the UK. This therefore begs the question of why is this available outside of America? Is it so that people can check sexual offender information before vacationing in America, or is it that the manufacturers are hoping for more international sexual offender registers to be made public? The creation of these apps could result in an increased possibility of vigilante action, especially by people from outside of the local area or even the country, as locating sexual offenders would be simple and straightforward.  This raises questions as to the moral, ethical, or social responsibility implications for these apps?

Figure 4:
The Staysafe Personal iPhone app icon (‘stay safe’, 2009, August 10,
staysafe.handstorm.com/)

This is a difficult question to answer, as notions around morality, responsibility, and ethics are very individualistic and, to a certain degree, socially constructed. These sexual offender identification apps seem to stem from social and public protection concerns around risk from sexual offenders, which suggests that these apps seem to have developed out of the symbiotic relationship between the public and manufacturing; market realisation, supply and demand. With sexual offending dominating much of the media, and especially the press (McCartan, forthcoming; Silverman & Wilson, 2002; Thomas, 2005; Davidson, 2008), it seems only natural that the iPhone—a product of the times—will embrace this social zeitgeist and that the manufacturing industry will find a way to make money of it. Therefore, is the development of these sexual offender identification apps an example of manufacturing and the new media focusing on socially sensitive crimes, in an attempt to boost sales and make profit, in spite of their social and ethical responsibility? This begs the further question of are the manufacturers of these apps merely jumping on a well-established bandwagon in an attempt to make some easy money, and get some free as well as high profile publicity, or is it a planned business expansion with social and civic responsibility in mind? The manufacturers of these apps, but particularly the ‘Offender Locator’/’Offender Locator Lite’ app, claim that they are providing peace of mind to the public through  greater public protection and public safety, using the slogan ‘knowledge = safety’ to underline this point (Heussner, Berkowitz & Potter, 2009, July 28; iTunes, 2009; ‘Offender Locator Lite’, 2009, August 4, Apptism.com). The manufacturer’s argument and belief that they are providing an essential service, and much needed public protection, seems to be demonstrated by the fact that the ‘Offender Locator’ is one of the top 10 paid apps for the iPhone (Heussner, Berkowitz & Potter, 2009, July 28; Berkowitz & Heussner, 2009, August 7; Oliver, 2009, August 10); but is this a case of supply creating demand, or demand creating supply? Are the manufacturers of these apps really selling popular punitiveness, anti-social behaviour, and community action, rather than child protection? The former seems to be more likely than the latter; particularly, as the manufacturers seem to be appealing to peoples’ insecurities, fears, and stereotypes, as evidenced in the images, dialogue, and iPhone icons used by these apps (see Figures 1- 6).  

 
Figure 5:
Sex offender locations (‘Offender Locator’ / ‘Offender Locator Lite’) (Heussner, Berkowitz, & Potter, 2009, July 28).

It is important to realise that some of these manufacturers are selling sexual offender information which, in and of itself, raises ethical and moral issues? As previously stated, there are both paid versions (‘Offender Locator’, ‘Staysafe’, ‘Staysafe Personal’, and ‘Sex Offenders Search’) and free versions of the sexual offender identification apps (‘Offender Locator Lite’, ‘Staysafe Lite’ and ‘Watchout! for Offenders’), with some apps having both versions.  However, it must be stated the free apps are limited in comparison to the paid ones, even the paid version of the same app, with fewer sexual offenders identified and limited daily usage (Heussner, Berkowitz, & Potter, 2009, July 28); which seems to suggest that the only way to get the fullest and most up to date information is to download a paid sexual offender identification app. It is interesting that that the manufacturers are charging for a free service, sexual offender information, which the public has access to either online or in person (Fitch, 2006). As such, we must ask whether or not the notion that the manufacturers are providing a public service to protect people is undermined by the fact that they are profiting from it? Recently, the ‘Offender Locator’ was removed from sale in California (but not the ‘Offender Locator Lite’ version), as it is illegal in Callifornia to profit from sexual offender information (Berkowitz & Heussner, 2009, August 7; iTunes, 2009; Oliver, 2009, August 10). Nonetheless, the manufacturers are apparently investigating the reality of this claim (Martin, 2009, August 11), especially as the ‘Sex Offender Search’, the ‘Staysafe’ and the ‘Staysafe Personal’ apps are still available (Berkowitz & Heussner, 2009, August 7).

 
Figure 6:
Sex offender details screen (Sex Offender Search’) (Offender Details Screen, 2009, August 4, logsat.com)

Also, is it socially and/or morally acceptable to profit from disclosing sexual offender information, especially if one of the potential outcomes is the targeting of sexual offenders, possibly resulting in social unrest? Are the manufacturers willing to accept responsibility for the impact of their apps on offender rehabilitation, given that offenders may go underground, drop out of treatment, or re-offend (Plotnikoff & Woolfson, 2000; Fitch, 2006; McCartan, 2007)? Or, that there may be community action towards offenders possibly resulting in physical or property damage (Silverman & Wilson, 2002; ‘Arson attack on child sex Clevedon house’, 2009, August 5, Evening Post; Skelton, 2006, April 11)? This is a particularly serious, especially in regard to issues of mistaken identity and, therefore, reinforcing potential issues that already exist in regard to public disclosure (Plotnikoff & Woolfson, 2000; Fitch, 2006). However, it is difficult to assess the potential impact of these apps in regard to community action, as it is with any form of online public disclosure (Fitch, 2006). On one hand, it can be argued that this form of public disclosure could provide the motivation for community action and vigilantism. On the other hand, can we hold the manufacturers responsible for the actions of a few who would have engaged in deviant behaviour in any event and consequentially jump on a bandwagon? 

The aforementioned concerns begs a question as to how often the material on the offender locator is updated and how accurate it is (Heussner, Berkowitz & Potter, 2009, July 28; ‘Sex Offenders Search Now Available for the iPhone and the iPod’, 2009, August 3, einnews.com)? If it identifies the location and identity of sexual offenders, we must ask how likely it is that they will still be at that address, will the offender still look the same, will there be any differences between states, will there be a lag time between information being placed on the official sexual offender registers and appearing on the apps, and will there be consistency between the different apps?  If not, this means that it may be more likely that innocent people will be targeted or socially excluded as a result. This is particularly problematic if the public are paying for a service that maybe incorrect or incomplete.

There is also the possibility that sexual offenders could purchase these apps and use them as social networking tools, therefore reiterating fears about other forms of public disclosure (Fitch, 2006). Evidence indicates that sexual offenders, especially child sexual abusers, embrace adaptations in technology and new media (Taylor & Quayle, 2003), so why not the sexual offender identification apps? They could use the apps as a means to meet and engage with other sexual offenders, arrange sexual abuse encounters, and develop wide reaching social networks; especially, with the added features of the iPhone making this more possible (iPhone, 2009b). Consequentially, the public protection aspect of these apps (Heussner, Berkowitz & Potter, 2009, July 28; ‘Offender Locator: iPhone app lets you search for nearby sexual offenders while you're on the go’, 2009, July 30, Chicagotribune.com) would be undermined, reinforcing that public disclosure seems to give a false sense of security and is not providing the public protection that many assume it does (Fitch, 2006). This is especially true as the majority of abuse happens at home and is under-reported (Fitch, 2006; Howitt, 1995; Silverman & Wilson, 2002).

The issues discussed here in regard to the current sexual offender identification apps (‘Offender Locator’, ‘Offender Locator Lite’, ‘Staysafe’, ‘Staysafe Lite’, ‘Staysafe Personal’, ‘Watch out! For Offenders’ and ‘Sex Offender Search’) for the iPhone are not new. They have been previously discussed with respect to other forms of public disclosure (Fitch, 2006). However, the launch of these apps is particularly important as they allow free and fluid access to sexual offender monitoring and identification information that was not realised, until now, making it easier for the public to identify sexual offenders while on the move. This could possibly make it easier, or more likely, for vigilante action to take place. This is made all the more worrisome by the fact that we also monitor sexual offenders, both in America and the UK, through electronic tagging (Cobley, 2003), raising the possibility that these sexual offender identification apps could, in theory, receive downloads from these electronic tags. This would then allow the public to track the real time location of sexual offenders. Hence, there needs to be a degree of social and civic responsibility taken by the manufacturers for the use, design, development, and the outcomes of these apps; especially, given the apps’ popularity and fact that the manufacturers are making a profit from them. In closing, it appears, to this author, that the sexual offender identification apps are another demonstration that the responsibility of monitoring sexual offenders in the community is shifting away from the government and law enforcement towards the public (Levi, 2002). 

 

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[1] Please note full descriptions of the ‘Offender Locator’, ‘Offender Locator Lite’, ‘’Staysafe’, ‘Staysafe Lite’, StaySafe Personal’ ‘Watchout! For Offenders’& ‘Sex Offender  Search’ are available on iTunes, but you must download iTunes (http://www.apple.com/iphone/apps-for-iphone/) to view them.

 

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