Of all the applications that Apple (AAPL) has pulled from the iPhone App Store — and there have been quite a few — none were as creepy, sad or profitable as Offender Locator.
Launched in early June by ThinAir Wireless, a Houston-based GPS-tracking services company, in both free and $0.99 versions, it displayed the names, addresses, faces and criminal records of registered sex offenders living near you or anyone you know — or, using GPS data, near whatever street you happen to be driving down.
The app quickly moved into Apple’s Top 10 lists, where it caught the eye of the media — including the Washington Post and ABC News. On Friday, Aug. 6, the paid version disappeared from the App Store. By Sunday, Aug. 9, it was back.
Here’s what happened.
But first, a few words about the controversial application, which has almost as many critics as it has defenders. (Of the 9,209 reviews of Offender Locator Lite as of Monday morning, 3,181 gave it five stars and 2,471 gave it one, the lowest possible rating.)
Many have pointed out that under Megan’s Law, the same sex offender lists are available on Internet sites maintained by each state. In fact, most states sites give you far more information than Offender Locator provides. For example, the Sex Offender Inquiry System in Oregon, where I am vacationing this week, provides — in addition to the bare bones criminal records that the iPhone app displays — such details as the conditions and restrictions imposed by the court, the age and sex of the victims the offender is known to target, and his or her (although it’s almost always his) “methods of offending.”
Others have suggested that the app could be an invitation to stalk the stalkers — although opinion seems to be evenly divided whether this is a good thing or a bad.
ThinAir Wireless promotes its app as offering parents POM — peace of mind. “They know where you and your family are,” goes its promotional copy. “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.”
There’s more than a whiff of fear-mongering there. And as several critics have noted, there are numerous discrepancies between Offender Locator’s data and the states’, raising questions about how often the information is updated or checked for accuracy.
And at least one critic has voiced what she admits is an unpopular opinion “that once a person has finished serving his or her sentence, the offender shouldn’t be further stigmatized.” In a post on NJ.com, from the very state where Megan Kanka was murdered, Maria Andreu writes:
“If sex offenders continue to pose a risk to the public, either don’t let them out or monitor them electronically, but don’t give everyone access to their home address. Leave that information in the hands of law enforcement, where it belongs.
“By making the information mobile, it cuts down whatever ‘thinking period’ there was between finding the information and possible acts of violence or harassment. With approximately 20 million iPhones sold, that’s a lot potential anti-sex offender ‘vigilantes.’” (link)
But it was not for fear of creating an army of iPhone wielding vigilantes that the app was pulled.
Neither Apple nor ThinAir Wireless has commented for the record, but the sticking point was apparently a California law that prohibits the unauthorized sale of personal information — even about ex-criminals.
How else to explain why Offender Defender disappeared from the App Store, but not Offender Defender Lite (which limits users to five searches per day and lists a maximum of 10 offenders per search)?
In any event, it took ThinAir Wireless about three days to find a work around and start making money again. It simply removed California’s data from the for-profit version.
By Sunday, Offender Locator was back on the iPhone App Store. By Monday it was the No. 8 bestselling app and No. 1 utility program.