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Google Earth: The Next Step in Government Surveillance

I was raised in the South, the home of chivalry and civility. Therefore my grandmother never uttered, what she called, a by-word. According to her, cursing was for illiterates and the un-churched. Proper gents and ladies just didn’t say such things. So what did she do when something so caught her by surprise, so stirred her up, or left her without proper words to say? In such extreme times she would simply shake her head and mutter, “Oh my.” And let me assure you of one thing – there were times as a boy when I did something so bad as to force my grandmother into an “Oh my” that I would have given anything for an all-out cussin’ rather than her look when she whispered those two words.

People today are enamored with technology and I have to admit I couldn’t wait to show off finding our home with Google Earth the first day I discovered it. There are free web sites where one can sit and stare at traffic cams, street cams, even mall cams for hours on end. But as we sit in awe of being able to peer in on virtually anyone without their knowledge, I wonder how long it will take before the implications of these eyes in the sky finally leave us shaking our heads with nothing to say but, “Oh … Oh my!”

What began as a way to counteract terrorism is swiftly becoming an inexpensive tool for governments to use to find what they cannot obtain legal warrants to do. A number of countries and municipalities are embracing Google Earth and other search services as a tool to peek in on homeowners and businesses for a variety of reasons.

Greece has turned Google Earth into a national treasure of finding people it considers tax cheats. With its failing economy and desperate to fill the coffers, the government of Greece is now scanning the neighborhoods of professionals such as doctors and businessmen to see who might be trying to beat the insane wealth tax imposed by the country. And what are they looking for? Swimming pools, boats, new vehicles, and anything else they can find that might not have been reported. In the first round of searches the government discovered 17,000 swimming pools that had not been claimed for tax purposes. In the first six months alone, Greece garnered 1.8 billion Euros in delinquent taxes, fines, and penalties.

The city fathers of Riverhead Long Island in New York thought the idea was so good they decided to turn Google Earth into their own personal enforcer as well. In a village of 27,000 people, they found 250 swimming pools that had gone unregistered, thus netting $38,000. So what do we make of efforts such as these by Greece and Riverhead? Before you answer, consider Pennsylvania’s ad campaign of 30-second television spots practically trumpeting the Big Brother theme song. The catchy commercial shows satellite imagery as it zooms in on a Pennsylvania home accompanied by a robotic voice citing the homeowners for tax evasion. The ad ends with an ominous “find us before we find you.”

As a socialist state with a devastated economy one might give the citizens of Greece the benefit of the doubt for not seeing what they are allowing to happen to them. But we have no excuse. In a nation founded on the ideals of inalienable rights and due process guaranteed in our Constitution, we certainly must know better. But in case someone forgot to read the Fourth Amendment, here’s a quick refresher on what it ensures:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Our privacy isn’t secure because aerial intrusion is intrusive and unreasonable. There is no just cause to randomly scan our back yards in hopes of discovering untaxed property. In that case, everyone is guilty until proven innocent. One day you might just be looking at some live feed from a satellite on your local TV station and say, “Oh my – that’s me!”

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