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Is Google Earth Eyeing Your Pool?



August 17, 2010 By

The eyes-in-the-sky approach that the town of Riverhead, N.Y., used to find pools without proper permits didn't fly with everyone.

In the past few weeks, Riverhead officials had been using Google Earth's detailed satellite images and identified about 250 swimming pools whose owners hadn't filled out paperwork certifying that their structures were safe and up to code. According to town officials, pools without permits could be dangerous because without inspections, it's unknown whether the structures meet safety regulations. Because of Google Earth, Riverhead has been able to collect about $75,000 in fees from violators.

But objections from privacy advocates flooded the Long Island town as critics claimed the high-tech method erodes privacy rights and evokes the "we're watching you" feel of Big Brother.

"Technically it may be lawful, but in the gut it does not feel like a free society kind of operation," the New York Civil Liberties Union's Donna Lieberman told The Associated Press.

Riverhead officials have decided to stop using the free satellite imaging service. Still, Chief Building Inspector Leroy Barnes Jr. dismissed invasion of privacy charges, stating that the town only aims to make sure owners have safe swimming pools, nothing more.

"It's a safety issue more than anything else," he said. "Anybody can access Google Earth. It's free. It's not like we're spying; we're just verifying."

Barnes had concerns that bad plumbing or faulty wiring in permit-free pools could cause problems. Local officials sent numerous letters and had grace periods to urge residents to fill out the required forms or face hefty fines. He also rejected the idea that the town was using reconnaissance tactics to raise local revenue. The only money collected, he said, was the permitting fees residents were supposed to pay anyway.

The outcome of the operation is twofold: All but about 10 of the 250 violators identified have been compliant. And, Barnes said, the remaining 10 residents either have a pending permit or they need to do a final inspection.

At the same time, the hostile response has prompted local officials to abandon the Google Earth method and instead use its own GIS tool, although Barnes admitted "it is a little clumsy."

But Barnes still doesn't understand the backlash. Google Earth, he said, is a public tool with imaging data available to anyone around the globe. In Greece, officials reportedly used Google Maps and Google Earth to find people who didn't declare a pool to evade the taxes. Google has no official position on Riverhead's use of Google Earth, but issued the following statement:

"Google Earth is built from information that is available from a broad range of both commercial and public sources. The same information is available to anyone who buys it from these widely available public sources. Google's freely available technology has been used for a variety of purposes ranging from travel planning to scientific research to emergency response, rescue, and relief in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake."

Other services such as Microsoft's Bing Maps have similar imaging tools that governments have been implementing for months.

"Bing Maps has been steadily gaining ground with economic development agencies looking to add visualization of GIS data to websites aimed to spur regional growth and investment," according to the Bing Maps for Government blog.

But unlike Google Earth, governments have to pay for Bing's imaging service, Barnes said, and Riverhead just couldn't afford to do that.

"The town doesn't have the money," he said. "We took the cheaper route and used Google, which is free."

 


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Comments

Jose Machicao    |    Commented August 23, 2010

In fact privacy is a very important public management topic, but it is not a static problem. My suggestion is: if the problem becomes critic (as in these case that it seems a lot of pools have not permits) it is allowed to the Gov, who represents "the people" to use means equivalently respectful means to avoid. Another topic to reflect about: if I have a pool, I dont buy the right for that pool not to be watched from the satellite. The image of my pool watched from the sky is "public", is not private. The right to "use" my pool is private. I hope it helps for the debate. Regards Jose Machicao

Jose Machicao    |    Commented August 23, 2010

In fact privacy is a very important public management topic, but it is not a static problem. My suggestion is: if the problem becomes critic (as in these case that it seems a lot of pools have not permits) it is allowed to the Gov, who represents "the people" to use means equivalently respectful means to avoid. Another topic to reflect about: if I have a pool, I dont buy the right for that pool not to be watched from the satellite. The image of my pool watched from the sky is "public", is not private. The right to "use" my pool is private. I hope it helps for the debate. Regards Jose Machicao

Jose Machicao    |    Commented August 23, 2010

In fact privacy is a very important public management topic, but it is not a static problem. My suggestion is: if the problem becomes critic (as in these case that it seems a lot of pools have not permits) it is allowed to the Gov, who represents "the people" to use means equivalently respectful means to avoid. Another topic to reflect about: if I have a pool, I dont buy the right for that pool not to be watched from the satellite. The image of my pool watched from the sky is "public", is not private. The right to "use" my pool is private. I hope it helps for the debate. Regards Jose Machicao

Randy B    |    Commented August 23, 2010

As your article states free aerial imagery is available from a number of sources. There is no informed reasonable objection to using it for government purposes. If politicians interfere, it will only make government cost more. Would Riverhead stop doing property assessments because it feels like an invasion of privacy? Should aerial reconnaisance for marijuana growing operations be curtailed? My only suggestion is that Riverhead and all public entities using Google Earth or other aerial imagery portals should do press releases on the savings it produces in making government more efficient and at the same time addressing the limits of resolution (eg, it cannot recognize people or smaller objects. Let government be operated just by what people object to and you might as well move to Greece.

Randy B    |    Commented August 23, 2010

As your article states free aerial imagery is available from a number of sources. There is no informed reasonable objection to using it for government purposes. If politicians interfere, it will only make government cost more. Would Riverhead stop doing property assessments because it feels like an invasion of privacy? Should aerial reconnaisance for marijuana growing operations be curtailed? My only suggestion is that Riverhead and all public entities using Google Earth or other aerial imagery portals should do press releases on the savings it produces in making government more efficient and at the same time addressing the limits of resolution (eg, it cannot recognize people or smaller objects. Let government be operated just by what people object to and you might as well move to Greece.

Randy B    |    Commented August 23, 2010

As your article states free aerial imagery is available from a number of sources. There is no informed reasonable objection to using it for government purposes. If politicians interfere, it will only make government cost more. Would Riverhead stop doing property assessments because it feels like an invasion of privacy? Should aerial reconnaisance for marijuana growing operations be curtailed? My only suggestion is that Riverhead and all public entities using Google Earth or other aerial imagery portals should do press releases on the savings it produces in making government more efficient and at the same time addressing the limits of resolution (eg, it cannot recognize people or smaller objects. Let government be operated just by what people object to and you might as well move to Greece.

Kai Ponte    |    Commented August 26, 2010

My question is - why is the city even reviewing pools? Shouldn't the owner have taken out a permit prior to building the pool? What right does the city have to retroactivly enforce such things??

Kai Ponte    |    Commented August 26, 2010

My question is - why is the city even reviewing pools? Shouldn't the owner have taken out a permit prior to building the pool? What right does the city have to retroactivly enforce such things??

Kai Ponte    |    Commented August 26, 2010

My question is - why is the city even reviewing pools? Shouldn't the owner have taken out a permit prior to building the pool? What right does the city have to retroactivly enforce such things??

Vikram    |    Commented December 25, 2010

If u r carrying a phone (mobile) then let's not talk about privacy. Ur whereabouts r already known.

Spring    |    Commented April 6, 2011

Kai Ponte - yes, the owners should've taken out a permit prior to building a pool. However, it's obvious that not everyone does. If they did, there wouldn't be a need for the current tactic used by the city.


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