Launched by ThinAir Wireless, a GPS-tracking and wireless monitoring company, the Offender Locator iPhone application lets users view registered sex offenders living in their area.
The app comes in free and paid versions, but after nearly two months in the App store, the 99-cent application is among the ten best-selling paid apps. Amid the games and entertainment applications, Offender Locator has grabbed the sixth spot on the list.
The company says the app is one part of its suite of "Peace of Mind" products (other services include a GPS tracking system for teenagers and an alert system that sends subscribers real-time text messages from government agencies about weather and emergency situations).
"The offender locator is kind of like the first step in peace of mind – who's your neighbor," said ThinAir Wireless CEO Howard "Trip" Wakefield. "Our goal is really to allow parents to be aware of the different people that are just living right around the corner from them."
Although he wouldn't provide specific numbers, he said both the free and paid versions have been downloaded tens of thousands of times since early June. The free version doesn't provide all of the locations of sex offenders in the area and only lets users access the app a limited number of times each day.
The app prompts users to type in their address and then generates a map of the area with pinpoints showing where sex offenders have said they live.
Although the information is available for free on each state's sex offender registry Web site, Wakefield said they charge a price for the full version because the technology to power their service is expensive. The information may be free online, but their tool makes it easier for the public to access it, he said.
"Our goal is to have the most accurate, most cutting edge tool," he said. "It's all about convenience."
But legal experts and those who work in public safety offer words of caution.
Each state maintains a registry of sex offenders who are required to disclose their addresses. But each state also varies in terms of the laws surrounding the prosecution and tracking of sex offenders. And, even the state databases (from which Offender Locator draws its information) are not always up to date and entirely accurate.
"People have to be really careful. If you look at the various state Web sites, they all have disclaimers saying you can't trust the information," said Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "You rely at your own risk."
Sometimes the lists include sex offenders who have died or have not been updated with the latest addresses, he pointed out. You could look at the list and, depending on what you find, feel safe or threatened, but the feeling wouldn't necessarily be based on accurate information.
Wakefield conceded that tracking the nearly 700,000 registered sex offenders (according to the non-profit Stop Child Predators) is an arduous task. He said some of the less populous states are a few months behind but added that in a few months they intend to automate the process so that the system updates every two days.