Thursday, October 1, 2009

iPhone apps help track sex offenders, spot crime

Tracy Rodriguez of Houston, Texas, is not a trained private investigator or police officer. But with a gentle tap on her iPhone screen, the mother of three can access information revealing the sex offenders who live within a 10-mile radius of where her children practice sports or watch movies.

Tracy Rodriguez, who is holding the iPhone, uses the device to locate sex offenders.

1 of 2 The information, provided by an iPhone app called Offender Locator, helps Rodriguez make more informed choices, she says. When the app pops open on her phone, there is an eerie sketch of a man's face. Then, the app asks for an address.

"I am constantly worrying about the well-being of my family," says Rodriguez, who uses the app several times daily. "You can't be too careful."

Since the iPhone launched more than two years ago, a handful of crime-fighting tools have emerged among the thousands of innovative apps. They give ordinary citizens the capability to sleuth and guard themselves against crime. Users can conduct a background check during a dinner date or avoid walking through a high-crime area.

The Offender Locator app has been downloaded more than a million times, breaking into the top 10 most popular apps list on iTunes when it made its debut in June.

Some BlackBerry models and Google's Android also offer crime-fighting apps. And the app industry is bound to grow, which probably means more inventive tools to fight crime. The Yankee Group Research Inc., a company with expertise in global connectivity, estimates U.S. smartphone app downloads will reel in $4.2 billion in revenue by 2013.

For the past decade, law enforcement agencies have relied on e-mail and texting to interact with the public. Now, iPhone apps are expanding their reach by allowing people to access information wherever they are, as long as they have cell phone service.

"I think mostly it will be used by users who want to do their own little reporting," says MG Siegler, a writer at, a blog about technology start-ups. "These apps are definitely very popular."

In February, the FBI worked with NIC Inc., a contractor that develops Web pages for the government, to construct an app that provides updates of the 10 most wanted fugitives and terrorists. So far, there have been more 541,000 downloads in 170 countries since the app was released in February.

This month, Intelius Inc., a company that provides public records online, is launching an iPhone app called Date Check, which is "like having a private investigator in your purse," company officials say. During a blind date, the Date Check user can snoop right away by punching in the stranger's name. Within seconds, users can read records showing whether their date is a convicted rapist or owns a million-dollar property.

"It gives you peace of mind of who you might be interacting with," said John Arnold, executive vice president of Intelius.

But Lillie Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group, warns that the crime-fighting apps can spread inaccurate and misleading information. Public records can have errors, and sometimes, court records may be expunged or sex offenders are removed from registries. Some apps carry disclosures that say the information may not be accurate or up-to-date.

Thanks again Eric for the heads up on this story!

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