Privacy, Data Mashups, and Practical Obscurity

I have long been thinking about how the interweb affects the notion of practical obscurity and how one can no longer expect to be forgiven for a crime after they have served their sentence.

An example I have used for a while now is the Georgia Sex Offenders mashup


IMHO sites like the above one will just end up creating ghettos of sex offenders as real-estate agents start to adopt such online resources to help sell properties to future homeowners. Eventually we will see neighbourhoods of sex offenders as no family would ever choose to live next to a rehabilitated offender. The key word in the previous sentence being “rehabilitated”, as they have been released by the judicial system into the community as reformed human beings.

Now one can install an iPhone App, which tells the phone own about sex offenders in their local area, GPS/web magic, note that this only works in the US :


I believe that practical obscurity is a dying concept. At this point in the post I should stress that I DON’T classify sex offences are petty crimes, but I believe that the advent of such data on the web will set a president for other forms of crimes to be being posted to the public domain. I can easily imagine a future where all crimes committed in some US state X are posted to the web.

For example, high-school student Bob gets arrested for shop-lifting and gets a minor punishment that could be community service or something of a similar vain. Alice a classmate of Bob’s finds this so funny that she posts it to whatever cool social network she is currently a member of, pushing it into the public domain. Now after Bob has served his sentence in pre-interweb days this information would have been practically obscure, it would have been logged in a filing cabinet in some local magistrate court, and unless you had the impetus to seek out this information you would probably never have found out about it. Alice would have been able to communicate the “funny story” to her social network, but those conversation’s would not have been in the public domain. And now they would be.

Well that is all from me, would love to know if people in the US have installed this APP, and wonder how many linch mobs are going to run around US cities taking following their trusty iPhone and taking the law into their own hands. Here is a link to an article which describes some of the vigilantism which occured in the UK after the tabloid new paper “The News of the World” published a list of sex offenders in the year 2000. Do excuse the fact that I am pointing to a document on the “world socialist web site”, but it seems to report the story well 🙂

Furthermore, Kieron O’Hara, Nigel Shadbolt and I wrote a paper touching on this a while back, it can be downloaded from ECS eprints.