The paranoid bubble of Offender Locator

TechCrunch reports that one of the Top 10 current iPhone apps in the USA is something called ‘Offender Locator’. This is a little mash-up that overlays the location of those on registries of sex offenders onto google maps, so you can check where sex offenders live whilst you are on the move.

This is such a world of wrongness, its hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with the categorisation. The category of ‘sex offender’ varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This app is clearly targeted at parents worried about paedophiles, yet depending on the state, offender registers can include people convicted of innocuous things like public nudity, public urination and simple underage sex (and please don’t try to tell me that a 17-year old kid who has consensual sex with a 15 year-old kid is a technically a paedophile, that’s just normal, whatever the laws of some backwards states may say).

The second thing is that even the US Department of Justice says that such registers cannot be guaranteed to be accurate. So now these non-guaranteed lists are available to you mapped out on your iPhone. Does that somehow make them more accurate? No, but all those red arrows on a map do look much very ‘real’ and scary though, don’t they?

Which brings me to the third point. What are you supposed to do with this ‘information’? It’s hardly empowering, in fact it creates a false view of the world based on fear. Will you not let your kids out within several miles of any red marker on the map, will you take a detour to avoid neighbourhoods with high concentrations of offenders when you are driving, or of course, in contrast, will you deliberately go to such places with a baseball bat to show those sex offenders who’s boss?

Finally, of course, this information isn’t ‘live’. It shows you where sex offenders live, but they aren’t chipped yet, so not where they actually are at any one moment in time. It provides at once a false sense of reassurance and the nagging feeling of doubt that they could really be right behind that tree over there, or in the shadows. And what do ‘they’ look like? That man over there with the 5 o’clock shadow at 11 in the morning sure looks like a sex offender… and there’s definitely some in this neighbourhood, your iPhone says so!

Apps like this, policies like this, also increase the pressure for more ‘comprehensive’ solutions – especially this app. Because it isn’t ‘live’, they’ll be people asking ‘why not?’ Why not tag these people for the rest of their lives with GPS cuffs, or implant them with RFID chips?

Finally, the thinking behind this app is just wrong in terms of what we know about sex offenses. Most real sexual violence and sexual abuse of children takes place within the home and within ‘normal’ family relationships (and ‘normal’ schools and nurseries too). That’s what Mr or Mrs iPhone doesn’t want to hear. ‘It couldn’t be my husband, okay he gets angry with the kids sometimes, but he’s under a lot of pressure at work and I know he loves us…’ Far easier to externalize the ‘threat’, to cast it ‘out there’ amongst the red arrow markers on the streets of some other neighbourhood…

Surveillance isn’t necessarily the same thing as paranoia but when surveillance becomes pathological, paranoia is the result. Some paranoia is about surveillance, some is expressed in surveillance. This kind of apparently democratic, freedom of information app, demonstrates the worst and most pathological places that a society of ubiquitous surveillance can start to go. It creates defensive bubbles of individualized, desocialized paranoia, of protecting ‘the kiddies’ against the threats from the ‘Other’, outside. Perhaps you should just stay inside and buy everything from and make your kids live in some virtual world where only those nice marketers can prey on them…

(thanks to Aaron Martin for pointing this snippet of news out to me)

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

One thought on “The paranoid bubble of Offender Locator”

  1. Wow! Other people actually get it! Nice to know the world is not completely overridden with nailbiting Oprah watching soccer moms. The only use I can see with the iPhone application is for vigilantes to find targets. Just another reason not to buy an “i” anything. By the way, there’s people who think amazon’s the antichrist LOL. Seriously though, what we know about *ex offenders are all myths and misconceptions. Check out for the facts.

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