No Earthly Objection

It has come to my attention that Google Earth — the now ubiquitous tool for mapping and geographic information — is being used in ways that are troublesome to civil liberties advocates.

Facing a fiscal crisis so profound that even ours pales in comparison, the nation of Greece, where cheating on taxes is the order of the day, has used Google Earth to locate fancy homes with swimming pools that were built illegally and are therefore off the tax rolls.
Officials in Riverhead, N.Y., on Long Island, have used satellite imagery to locate homeowners with swimming pools that failed to comply with safety regulations, such as proper fencing. Unlike Greece, however, Riverhead officials insist their motivation was public safety — not filling the town’s treasury.
Be that as it may, should we be concerned about public officials using such technology to find violations that are not in plain sight from the street? Is the practice a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures? Do we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our back yard?
In the two cases cited above, I would have to say no. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy on any place on your property that does not have a roof. If you disagree with me, then you’d have to ask yourself if we should also ban the practice of allowing authorities to hire aircraft to take aerial photographs of properties within municipal borders — a practice that has existed for decades.
So what is the objection? The fact that Google Earth makes it so easy to capture recent aerial and street-view images? I’d say if it can be see from the air, then it is pretty much in the public domain. But civil libertarians disagree:

The New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman said there are ways to enforce requirements “without this sort of engaging in Big Brother on high. Technically, it may be lawful, but in the gut it does not feel like a free society kind of operation.”

“In the gut?” Is that what we should basing our public policy on? Gut feelings? Show me a plausible way in which this practice can be abused and then I would be open to opposing it. Right now, I can think of none.
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  • Terrence McCarthy

    I have no problem with this. But people who live in glass houses…

  • Terry Cowgill

    Good question, Terrence. Do people who live in glass houses have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Perhaps only if they have dark drapes.

  • Terrence McCarthy

    My guess is that people who live in glass houses don't consider privacy to be all that important. And there are a LOT of people who live in glass houses: high rises apartment buildings in big cities. Rear Window Gone Wild. I've heard you do not need the Playboy Channel if you live near these places. A telescope maybe…

  • Marshall Miles

    Now only if Google earth could find Jimmy Hoffa

  • Matt

    I don't have a problem with law enforcement using it – if it is free and available out there I think they should. I do have a problem with Google collecting it in the first place, however. It is interesting that liberal Americans only seem to mind when government/law enforcement uses this but not when corporate America does. So it is OK for Google to collect this info and use it for marketing purposes/sell it but not for government to use it? I understand (and strongly share) the desire to protect our freedoms but just as we need to protect them from both parties we need to protect them from government AND business…

  • Fred

    i had a long comment typed out and hit the wrong button! to sum up, a swimming pool in the back yard is protected with an expectation of privacy by the "Curtilage" of their property in the 4th amendment. Secondly, google earth/maps images are not extremely high resolution and NOT in real time. They can be hours, days, even months old depending on the last time google processed a usable image. (they get shots sent to them all the time because the satellites orbit fast.. but many of the images are not used because of quality.) A grainy photo of what "looks like a swimming pool" that was taken 4 weeks ago is not grounds to go trespass in search of it. let's face it.. it looks like a pool.. maybe they laid out a tarp on the line to dry out. maybe they took it out last week. maybe it's a shallow reflecting koi pond..the person should have an expectation that no one is hovering above their house looking specifically for people with pools just to give citations and fines.

  • Terry Cowgill

    Fred, I understand that the Google images are not in real-time. We just disagree about the curtilage of one's property being protected by the 4th Amendment.That would mean a cop walking through the alley who saw something illegal going on in your backyard could not take action because to do so would be tantamount to entering your actual house without your consent — or without a warrant.