Smile! Aerial Images Being Used to Enforce Laws

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RIVERHEAD, N.Y. — On New York’s Long Island, it’s used to prevent
drownings. In Greece, it’s a tool to help solve a financial crisis.
Municipalities update property assessment rolls and other government
data with it. Some in law enforcement use it to supplement
reconnaissance of crime suspects.

High-tech eyes in the sky — from
satellite imagery to sophisticated aerial photography that maps entire
communities — are being employed in creative new ways by government
officials, a trend that civil libertarians and others fear are eroding
privacy rights.

"As technology advances, we have to revisit
questions about what is and what is not private information," said
Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for
Democracy and Technology.

Online services like Google and Bing
give users very detailed images of practically any location on the
planet. Though some images are months old, they make it possible for
someone sitting in a living room in Brooklyn to look in on folks in
Dublin or Prague, or even down the street in Flatbush.

Walter, an attorney and first-term town supervisor in Riverhead, N.Y.,
insists he is a staunch defender of privacy rights and the Fourth
Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

Walter supported using Google Earth images to help identify about 250
Riverhead homes where residents failed to get building permits
certifying their swimming pools complied with safety regulations. All
but about 10 eventually came to town hall.

Walter said the focus
was safety, not filling town coffers with permit money, which averaged
about $150 depending on the size of the pool. A 4-foot fence is
required, gates have to be self-closing and padlocked. All pools must
have an alarm that sounds when sensors are activated indicating someone
is in the pool.

"We have a town employee who is a personal friend
of mine whose son was found face-down in a swimming pool," Walter said.
"He’s OK, but I don’t want to be the supervisor that attends the funeral
of a child that drowns in a swimming pool."

Lillie Coney,
associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in
Washington, D.C., fears that while Walter’s focus was safety, other
municipalities may use the images to check for other transgressions.

only a matter of time," Coney said. "There are lots of ordinances where
this can be used. In California, where they deal with brush fires,
could a satellite image show if a homeowner has brush growing too close
to his home? What if someone has junk cars on their lot in violation of

Riverhead resident Tony Villar said the town’s action "could be considered Big Brother looking down at you."

"But at the same time, if the government can listen to your telephone conversations in the name of terrorism," he said.

outside the Riverhead Public Library, Walter Casey of Flanders agreed.
"I think it’s a great intrusion on people’s privacy; they should use it
on the politicians’ backyards."

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 Greece, officials are struggling with a debt
crisis and have sought to catch tax-evaders by using satellite photos to
spot undeclared swimming pools — indicators of taxable wealth.

spokeswoman Kate Hurowitz said in a statement that Google Earth
acquires its information from a broad range of commercial and public

"The same information is available to anyone who buys it
from these widely available public sources," she said. "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."

At least nine lawsuits seeking class-action
status have been filed in the United States, contending that Google
collected fragments of e-mails, Web-surfing data and other information
from unencrypted wireless networks as it photographed neighborhoods for
its "Street View" feature. Google is also facing investigations or
inquiries in 38 states as well as in several countries, including
Germany, Spain and Australia.

The Mountain View, Calif., company
said in May it had inadvertently collected the data from public Wi-Fi
networks in more than 30 countries, but maintains it never used the data
and hasn’t broken any laws.

Google Earth posts updates about
every two weeks on selected images from its providers, with images
ranging from a few weeks to a few years old.

For big cities like
Chicago, tracking illegal pools, porches and decks through Google Earth
requires frequent imaging updates, so the Chicago buildings department
uses it as a reference tool on a case-by-case scenario, said spokesman
Bill McCaffrey.

"We’re not opposed to adopting new technology, but
until it advances where we can get photos of more recent updates, we
don’t have any plans to implement it," he said.

Smaller towns such as Champaign and Naperville, Ill. opted to use satellite images as reference only.

it’s so we can see that we’re going to the right building when we go to
do inspections," said Ann Michalsen, lead inspector for code
enforcement in Naperville.

It’s also important for police officers
to know they have the right destination when executing search warrants,
said Joe Pollini, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"Most departments would use it as a preliminary step, but they would
also use active surveillance with their own aircraft," he said.

nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog is seeking to determine the extent of
the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration’s use of Google Earth in
its investigations, spokesman John M. Simpson said last week.

contracting records reviewed by Consumer Watchdog show that the FBI has
spent more than $600,000 on Google Earth since 2007. The Drug
Enforcement Administration, meanwhile, has spent more than $67,000.

has called on Congress to investigate how U.S. law enforcement and
intelligence communities are using Google technologies. The group says
it has concerns that data could be used for racial profiling.

New York Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center uses satellite
imaging and computerized mapping systems to identify geographic patterns
of crimes and to pinpoint possible addresses where suspects might flee —
information relayed to investigators on the street. The NYPD also has
two major security initiatives where a network of public and private
cameras will eventually link and be searchable.

The NYCLU has filed lawsuits in opposition.

live in an environment where we are told that if it’s on camera, if you
have a video record, that will make us safer," Lieberman said. "That
may be appealing, but it is an unproven assertion. There’s no evidence
of that. Yet we see millions, if not billions, of post-9/11 money has
gone to law enforcement for installing cameras in every conceivable nook
and cranny."

Associated Press writers Serena Dai in Chicago and Colleen Long
in New York and researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York contributed to
this report.

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