• United States



by Art Jahnke

Should Neighbors Broadcast News of Local Sex Offenders?

May 24, 20052 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

In a pleasant suburban neighborhood not too far from mine, a message recently raced through e-mail inboxes like a fire through dry grass, to steal a phrase from Faulkner. The message warned that a sex offender was living nearby, and it linked to a state-run database advising residents of their right to request information about this offender from the local police. As it turned out, no requests were necessary, because the same e-mail message included a picture of the offender, as well as his name, address, height, weight, age and hair color.

Sex offenders sometimes remain dangerous after their release from prison. Ten-year-old statistics from the Justice Department indicate that sex offenders are about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for a sex crime after their discharge. But while that comparison may sound alarming, those re-arrested for sex offenses represent only 5.3 percent of sex offendersroughly one out of 20.

So how protective, exactly, should neighbors be? With a little help from the Web, a couple of databases and an e-mail list, a single protective neighbor can digitally tar and feather just about anyone in a matter of minutes. And, generally speaking, that neighbor has the right to do that, as long as the damning report is factual.

In recent weeks, weve read a lot about campaigns of digital vigilantes, some of them attacking spammers, some going after the operators of phishing schemes. Most of the news stories have portrayed the vigilantes as white-hat hackers, good guys bent on protecting the rest of us from cranks, crooks, and other dangers. Certainly, neighbors who send e-mails to long lists of neighbors warning them of the proximity of sex offenders are trying to do the right thing. But are they? Or is it too easy, these days, to spin our fears out in a vast digital web that prevents anyone from ever moving forward? What should the neighbors do? What is appropriate response to news of a local sex offender?