August 17, 2010 By Russell Nichols
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."