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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET


Laura Ingle

New York, NY


Google Earth Watching Your Backyard …And Maybe More

August 9, 2010 - 1:21 PM | by: Laura Ingle

For anyone doing anything private in their backyard, beware… local officials may use Google Earth to watching over you.  One town on New York’s Long Island is using Google Earth to crack down on pool owners without permits, and some privacy advocates say the move reeks of “Big Brother.”

Administrators in the town of Riverhead, NY say it is their job to make sure that every structure is safe, up to code, and on the books – and found that turning to the internet was the fastest and cheapest way to do it.   When the town started looking at expired permits for pools about a year ago, they realized that there were people out there who had no permits at all, which can be very dangerous – if there is no permit, there is no inspection, which can mean no safety precautions. What’s worse, many pool owners didn’t even realize they were in that situation.  We talked with Leroy Barnes Jr., the Building Department Administrator for the town who explains, “we started looking at the permits that were expired, cause the problem, was that pool companies were obtaining permits, on behalf of the property owner, finishing the job, and then leaving and never calling for the final inspection, or applying for the final certificate of occupancy.”

It turns out there were close to 250 pool owners with no permits.  The town has been able to get in touch with almost all of the pool owners and as of this week, only 26 are not in total compliance.  Privacy advocates though are sounding an alarm on the practice, and say there needs to be more done to protect the rights of residents.  Lillie Coney who is the Associate Director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.  Coney says, “There are ways to get this message and get this particular objective met without spying on people.  There are neighborhood watch associations, there are associations, there are community organizations in making sure that the permits that are required for safety purposes are met.”  Coney also says there needs to be regulations in place if municipalities are going to continue to use Google Earth in this way.

We reached out to a Google spokesperson about the controversy, who 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.”

Many people we talked with in Riverhead said they understood the reasoning and think it’s a smart way to make sure everyone is on the up and up.  Remember, it’s NOT illegal for the town to do this, anyone can use Google Earth.   Some people like Wayne Eigenmann say they feel this is way too much government snooping around.  Eigenmann told us, “As a society do we want to go down that path, or do we want to constantly have to watch over our shoulders to see if there is a government official standing there wondering who’s going to find me, what’s the penalty for this, you know, did I cross the street and jaywalk, am I going to get a ticket for that?”  Don Rocilo who used to own a pool said, “I don’t like the idea, it’s the politicians taking over again.”

One important note, the town is *not* imposing any fines on pool owners if they come in and apply for a permit, and have put a second amnesty program in place to give people more time to comply so that they aren’t hit with any additional costs.   The second amnesty program starts next week, which means pool owners without proper permits, have until mid November to get their paperwork and fees in order.

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