Law Enforcement’s Newest Tool: Google Earth

Posted August 5, 2010 in Internet Law by Arthur Buono

Homeowners can’t say they weren’t warned. Once upon a time, the Supreme Court said it was cool for law enforcement to use an aircraft to examine your very private, fenced-in backyard for marijuana plants. So it’s no surprise to find a town on Long Island using airborne surveillance to spot illegal swimming pools. Except maybe because they’re doing it from their desktops, using Google Earth.

  • Town uses Google Earth to spot zoning and permitting violations
  • Your backyard may seem private, but anyone can watch from above
  • Technology outstripping people’s ability to keep secrets


Google Un-Earths Illegal Backyard Pools

Yes, the whole thing’s creepy. Google caused a big stink with its Street View feature. We now see that Google Earth, though less intrusive, carries the risk of mischief too. It’s not known how the town came up with the idea to use Google Earth to find unpermitted pools, but they’ve collected about $75,000 in permit fees since doing so. Town officials say they’re just enforcing the building code, and trying to keep people safe from improper installation.

There was a time when your backyard was pretty much off-limits to law enforcement. This changed drastically in 1986. The Supreme Court OK’d spying into fenced backyards, so long as it was done from the air. In other words, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your back yard. Code enforcement officers used to drive around in cars looking for lawn sprinklers going on off days. Now they can save gas money and do a better job without leaving the office.

The lesson, it seems, is to build a covered pool. Seriously though, privacy is fast becoming a quaint, 20th-century idea. Privacy is under attack from technology in all forms. Even simply browsing the internet carries risks. The law is scrambling to keep up with the seemingly infinite ways technology can capture surprising information about you. Google has a knack for getting in the middle of privacy disputes. Remember that the next time you log on.

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