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Is it invasion of privacy to use Google Earth to catch violators?

This interesting article appeared in this morning’s Seattle Times. Please note the R in “peering,” it threw me at first too.

NY town votes to stop Google Earth pool peering


Big Brother’s not watching anymore. At least not the pool.

Newsday reports that council members in the town of Riverhead have voted to stop using Google Earth to check whether all pools are properly permitted.

The town had used the satellite image service to find pools for which homeowners never filled out the required paperwork. Officials said the unpermitted pools were a safety concern because there was no way to know whether the pools’ plumbing, electrical work and fencing met state and local regulations without the required inspections.

The council voted Wednesday that overhead satellite images couldn’t be used as the basis for prosecutions of violations that couldn’t easily be seen from public areas.

I find this an interesting question: Can a government use public images like Google Earth as a tool for catching building code violations, when the violation is not apparent from streets and sidewalks? What about catching cheats, like the household on unemployment or welfare that builds a pool, new shed or buys play equipment (as the IRS has apparently started doing.)

More below the fold.

Here is another interesting question: If the government can legally use public satellite images like Google Earth to monitor the populace, can it legally use private satellite images, say, from a government run system of very high resolution orbital imagers able to provide near real-time tracking? The technology exists, as Bush II demonstrated with his “proof” of “nuclear warhead missiles” being transported through Iraq (which turned out to be sewer pipes if memory serves, but I digress.) Imaging technology has advanced significantly in the last 10 years, and the US admits to putting new spy satellites into orbit every couple of months.

If a government can legally use public and private satellite images, can the public do so as well? If an environmental activist used Google Earth to show clear-cutting in restricted parts of a designated wilderness area, or a mine operation of a type other than what was described in public disclosure documents, would the images be allowed in to evidence or thrown out as unreasonable invasions of privacy?

What if, instead of catching welfare cheats and building code violators, the satellites were used for personal surveillance? In theory, it would be easy to keep tabs on a mosque or suspected terrorist training school by satellite and tracking people as they come and go; by finding where these people go, it would be trivial to deduce their identity based on the location of their residence or employment.

Does the very act of stepping out of doors — even into your own back yard — mean you give up every shred of privacy?

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Gregory Gadow

Gregory Gadow