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.