19 Comments

Summary:

A new iPhone and Android app called “Sex Offender Tracker” uses augmented reality to show you the location of any registered offenders who are in your area when you hold up your phone. What happens when this kind of app pulls up other info as well?

Sex Offender Tracker

Like it or not, the web is getting more and more interconnected to the “real” world — in part by what some call “augmented reality” apps, which allow Google Goggles to recognize physical objects when you point your mobile device at them, or have Yelp show you reviews of nearby restaurants hovering in the air as you hold up your phone. This is all wonderful and Star Trek-like, but what are the privacy implications of this kind of technology? Take just one recent example of the trend: an iPhone and Android app called “Sex Offender Tracker,” which shows you the location of any registered sex offenders in your area.

It sounds like a joke, or a Saturday Night Live skit — an impression that isn’t helped by the fact that app-maker BeenVerified (which runs a criminal background-check service), is using Antoine Dodson as its pitchman in a YouTube video commercial for the product. In case you aren’t familiar with him, Dodson is an Alabama resident who became famous earlier this year after an interview he gave to a local TV station about a sexual assault on his sister was turned into a YouTube viral hit that eventually made it to iTunes (and earned Dodson enough to buy a house). In the promotional video, embedded below, Dodson holds up his phone and the app shows a series of red exclamation marks superimposed on the surroundings, with each denoting a registered sex offender.

Obviously, sexual offenses are not a joke. And the ability to use your phone to see important information about your neighborhood or the place you happen to be has the potential to be hugely valuable. But do we really want apps that can pull up a person’s criminal history and other details about his or her life and show it to us in real-time as we watch them walk down the street? At the moment, it’s only a sex-offender tracking app — but what’s to stop other companies or apps from pulling up anyone’s credit history, tax records or a list of criminal offenses and superimposing them on your face as you shop for groceries?

As Om noted recently, services like Rapleaf have all kinds of data about you, compiled from various public databases and the history of your movements around the web and various social networks. The potential for real-time invasions of privacy seems to be escalating, and it’s not just celebrities any more who are subject to services such as JustSpotted.com, which shows you real-time encounters with celebrities “in the wild.” When Gawker.com came out with its Gawker Stalker tool — a similar celebrity tracker — in 2006, there was outrage at the invasion of privacy it represented. Now such things are ho hum. And they are becoming more a reality of life for everyone, not just “stars.”

It may be true that on the Internet you have no privacy, as Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said in 1999 (and as this humorous Venn diagram of the intersection between the Internet and privacy illustrates) but not everyone is comfortable with that bargain. The trials and tribulations of Facebook and its attempts to balance privacy and social sharing are evidence of that, as the company continues to face lawsuits and government inquiries. Meanwhile, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an interviewer that if people don’t like the fact that the company is recording pictures of their homes via its Street View cars, “you can just move.” We’re assuming that’s a bad joke — or maybe not.

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  1. Dave Elchoness Monday, October 25, 2010

    Our company built the Sex Offender AR app for BeenVerified. Given the nature of the information – public and related to serious criminal convictions – we felt comfortable using our technology for this purpose. That said, the emergence of location as an element in computing is only going to make the separation between private and public more problematic. Before it was data about you on the web. Now it’s data about you, on the web, where you stand physically, where you work, or where you live. Interesting times.

    1. Interesting times indeed, Dave — thanks for the comment.

    2. Well said. Congrats on getting the contract to do the App.

  2. What if you’re someone who enjoys going around beating up sex offenders?

  3. I fail to see how access to public information, such as a sex offender database – could possibly constitute “invasion of privacy”.

    If the application did something like glean “friends-of-friends” or “friends-only” data from every facebook user that ran it on their phone and then shared that information with other users of the app without the users permission, that could be considered an invasion of privacy.

    Public data is, however, just that. People seem to have a delusion about what data is public and what is private; even data they themselves make publicly accessible (such as their primary profile picture on facebook) is not “private”.

    This same delusion of public vs. private data is likely suffered by the same individuals who think they have the “right” to never be offended.

    1. I think the problem is the degree of privacy that people expect with different information — it’s not just a binary choice between private and public. Some information might be public, but not readily available, for example — and taking that information and giving it to people on their cellphones via GPS takes it a step further into a more public arena than many people might be comfortable with (rightly or wrongly).

      1. I completely with Mathew’s comment. Augmented reality and other location based technologies add a new dimension for interacting with public information – i.e. location. This doesn’t change the public nature of the information, it only makes it, first, easier to get at and, second, more contextual. So before you could sit at your desktop and find a public servant’s salary and his home address at different urls. Now, using a system like Tagwhat, you could easily find both bits of information, place them on a location based tag, and invite followers to stumble upon that tag with the public servant’s name and salary outside of that person’s home. Is this right or wrong to do? Well, the data is public but disconnected on the web and also not contextual to the person’s location. It is less powerful outside of the location based AR context. Frankly, I think we’ll just get used to this kind of placement of data and learn to live with it.

      2. The public/private information argument I think is separate from the augmented reality presentation layer. When you combine databases with geolocation (mashups) you get a web-based app that can also easily show people where someone like a sex offender lives. This already exists as a mashup using Google maps as the geolocation component.

        AR is great, its fun, and useful. Look at what my company is doing with it to enhance personal communication as well as business marketing (http://atomicgreetings.com) We are experiencing the rapid growth phase of a technology. Things are going to get wild so hold on!

  4. Privacy in our digital world is an evolving concept. Most people don’t know that the web watches our every browser movement and that grocery store rewards cards track your every consumer whim in exchange for a few cents off a “jar of Skippy.”

    All this personal and/or public data is out on the web right now. AR doesn’t add location to it, it adds a ‘sometimes’ pretty presentation. If executed well, it aids understanding or comprehension of the data.

    AR is finding its legs and settling into our daily lives. There will be hits and misses as in all things. But I don’t think AR will have anything to do with the death of privacy, other decisions that put databases online will have much more impact on anyone’s privacy today and in the future.

    Stan Timek
    Atomic Greetings

    1. Yes, the data is present and available — even if most people don’t know it. But I think the use of AR brings it out in front of people in a much more public way that is going to catch some people off guard.

  5. Have you given much thought about the repercussions of this app ? Today, maybe those whom think and believe that this app could help us become aware of these types of people, Whose to say that somewhere down the road would come up with an App for certain Religious types among all of us ? YOU are giving the people a WEAPON to be used against each other whom we thought our government was our biggest enemy. As I see it, YOUR now giving the people a tool to help that same enemy whom everyone hates.

  6. I don’t think it needs to be an either/or choice. We can have both!

    As others have noted, information, like where registered sex offenders live, is already not only public, but mostly web searchable already.

    The underlying issue you raise, which I think is a quite good one, is how AR specifically will impact privacy. That is, going to a government Web site to find out how many sex offenders live in the community is something fairly different than your mobile phone alerting you that 10 registered sex offenders live within 10 miles of your current location.

    Perhaps a more generally disturbing example would be that AR will, at some point, bring something like GearScore, an addon in WoW that uses public information to assign and display a numerical value based on the statistics of that character’s gear, to real life. Don’t talk to that guy, he’s only got a FBScore of 350 (the loser!).

    Much in the way that widespread access to content creation tools have dramatically changed the media landscape, when access to all sorts of public information becomes usable in real-time decision making via AR, the privacy landscape will also change dramatically.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jack — well said.

  7. Privacy Net – October 26, 2010 | Digital Breakfast: PrivacyNet Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    [...] Augmented Reality apps are all fun and games, but have we stopped to think about the privacy implications? Personally, I don’t think having an augmented reality app that shows you where sexual offenders live is an invasion of privacy, considering there is a public registration for those individuals, but I can see where they’re going with this… [GigaOm] [...]

  8. As many have already mentioned, this information is already available to the general public via the web (so I will not go into it further).

    I often get a little downhearted by people referring to AR in a negative way. Of course, people are concerned, perhaps rightly so, of the invasion of privacy the technology may one day bring. As one comment said, how long will it be before other information is accessed?

    But for me, the technology can bring so much more. Check this out for example. http://www.myboucheron.com/myboucheron_int_EN.html. This application allows users to virtually ‘try on’ products from the comfort of their own home, scrutinising each item in the process using the onscreen zoom and rotate options.

    I feel this is the future of AR which we should focus on. Yes the technology may be frightening, but it can also be incredibly helpful!

    V

  9. What do they do about errors? EVERY large database contains errors of fact. If I move into a house that was previously occupied by a serial rapist, do I have to worry about waking up to the smell of smoke and the crash of Molotov cocktails through my windows? Even if the system correctly marks an address as that of a Registered Sex Offender, is he a child-murderer or someone who got caught taking a whiz behind a tree in a city park?

  10. I have a question for David around how the system is kept relevant please?

    I have young children and think the idea is good but my question is how do you keep the data up to date? For example – if the address shown in the program was an offenders address it may be that the offender has now moved. If that was to happen then how long does it take before you remove the ‘flag’ off the address which now could be home to an ‘innocent’? A community could think there is an offender present when there is not which could create a difficult situation. The thing about AR is that it is by definition ‘real’ and so people will think it’s factual.

    Equally a community could think that an address is ‘safe’ without knowing that a new tennant is an offender.

    I wonder if there’s a responsibility here for the publisher to ensure the quality of his information?

    In simple terms; do you ‘flag’ the person or the address. If you flag the address how current is your information and how ofter do you / can you refresh it?

    1. Peter, These are good questions. The data is delivered to us by BeenVerified. We built the mobile application that presents the data. You might contact them directly with the inquiry. Thanks.

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