Not only is there a debate about the constitutionality of using Global Positioning System units to help fight crime – now there’s concern about using Google Earth as well.
The Associated Press reported a few days ago that government officials in regions ranging from the Riverhead, N.Y., to the country of Greece are using Google Earth and other satellite imagery sites to locate items such as swimming pools without the proper regulatory permits or that indicate undeclared wealth.
The Chicago building department also uses it to look for pools, porches, and decks without the proper permits, while other Illinois cities use it as a reference to ensure that they’re inspecting the right building, the article continued.
It’s not the first time Google Earth has been used for this purpose; law enforcement officials have used satellite imagery, and then more readily available sites such as Google Earth, for some time to look for marijuana fields, with a telltale spectral signature, or buildings with more heat than they should have.
And as long ago as 2006, a Racine County, Ark., sheriff took the coordinates in a GPS unit owned by someone busted for pot, plugged them into Google Earth, and then executed searches in those areas, finding a number of marijuana growing operations.
(On the other side of the law, there has also been concern that Google Earth could be used by pedophiles to find parks and schools, and by terrorists to find buildings to blow up, as well as burglars that used the software to find lead roofs to steal.)
As with the GPS itself, civil libertarians are concerned about the legality of using Google Earth and other mapping applications in this way. The nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog has called on Congress to investigate how U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities are using Google technologies in their investigations, the AP article quoted spokesman John M. Simpson as saying, going on to point out that the FBI has spent more than $600,000 on Google Earth since 2007, while the Drug Enforcement Administration has spent more than $67,000. Other organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are also following the issue, according to the AP article.
"It's only a matter of time," the article quoted EPIC’s associate director Lillie Coney as saying. "There are lots of ordinances where this can be used. In California, where they deal with brush fires, could a satellite image show if a homeowner has brush growing too close to his home? What if someone has junk cars on their lot in violation of ordinances?"