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Officials Use Google Earth To Find Unlicensed Pools 650

Officials in Riverhead, New York are using Google Earth to root out the owners of unlicensed pools. So far they've found 250 illegal pools and collected $75,000 in fines and fees. Of course not everyone thinks that a city should be spending time looking at aerial pictures of backyards. from the article: "Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC, said Google Earth was promoted as an aid to curious travelers but has become a tool for cash-hungry local governments. 'The technology is going so far ahead of what people think is possible, and there is too little discussion about community norms,' she said."
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Officials Use Google Earth To Find Unlicensed Pools

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  • by Crudely_Indecent ( 739699 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:26PM (#33126194) Journal

    but how much did it cost?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by somaTh ( 1154199 )
      Well, Google Earth is free, so just the time spent staring at the satellite imagery. But, compare that to the time to driving around trying to find them, and I think it's pretty obvious that the cost is neglible.
      • by dsoltesz ( 563978 ) <> on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @02:58PM (#33128100) Homepage Journal
        Since using aerial photography to spot permit violations (construction w/o a permit) is an common activity that's been going on for a very long time, municipalities are actually saving money by using freely available data instead of buying it, paying for overflights, paying for image processing and mosaicking, paying for software that can do all this, etc. Since Google provides data collected from previous years, folks doing the work can easily do a temporal change comparison to spot new construction. Brilliant way to work on a shoestring budget... of course, I don't have an illegal pool.
        • by toadlife ( 301863 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @04:55PM (#33130046) Journal

          Overhead flights are also used by mosquito abatement districts is to spot "green" pools. When we moved into our house, the pool was a swamp, complete with water bugs and who knows what else living in it. About three weeks later, we got a visit from the mosquito abatement man to inspect our swamp. I had gotten the pool from greenish-black to turquoise by the time. He congratulated me on my progress (he had seen the pool before we moved in) and we never saw him again.

    • by dougmc ( 70836 )

      but how much did it cost?

      Probably very little -- one guy, spending a few days to go through the entire town in a grid via Google.

      Once you have a list of offenders, you send them a nasty letter. If you're not sure that something is a pool, you could fly a plane over or just ask to look, but you could stick to the nasty letters -- anybody who is innocent will certainly let you know.

      It's a nice cash grab and costs almost nothing. Nasty, yes, and does nothing to improve safety or anything along those lines, but it did make some money

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rhsanborn ( 773855 )
        It likely is a safety issue. I know I'm taking a leap here, but I'm assuming the license requires the homeowner to purchase a permit to install the pool, which should have been inspected. Builders in any line who don't use permits aren't neccssarily putting their employees and clients at risk, but there is a reason we have a permit and inspection process, because some builders do. And those who have decided to skirt this process are undermining the process as a whole.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by kevinNCSU ( 1531307 )
          I think a lot of the pool permit/safety issues deal less with the safety of the builder's employees and more with general safety of the pool like the pool has to be surrounded by a fence of certain height with a self locking door so neighbor's toddlers can't chase a ball over and fall in while playing in the backyard, proper wiring of any lighting/circulation systems in the pool ect.
        • The big one is having the pool area enclosed and secured so wandering children don't drown. Public Health also takes an interest to ensure the water in the pool is tested. A license is probably the most reasonable way to ensure the pool is compliant. A building permit would simply not do it as the structural condition of the pool is not the main concern.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by vlm ( 69642 )

          I know I'm taking a leap here, but I'm assuming the license requires the homeowner to purchase a permit to install the pool, which should have been inspected

          A safety oriented inspection should not require over $30.

          This is pure money raising. $75K/250 pools is $300 per pool. Assuming the "usual" double fee if applied for after work completed, that would be a staggering $150 to pay a city employee to verify there is in fact a fence and a GFCI.

          I can safely assume you've never actually participated in a permit inspection. I have, many times. Mostly involves an older semi-retired inspector glancing at the work and driving off. The longest, most detailed inspect

  • I find the phrase "unlicensed pool" a little... disturbing.

    • I find it to be a good euphemism for the gene pool...
    • It's probably more "unpermitted" than "unlicensed". In most places, a pool, just like sheds, carports, or any other structure on the property, will add value. Added value means added taxes. Permits are typically the means by which a city/county/etc identify and add new structures to the tax roll.

      If they didn't get the permits, then it's a minor violation. Not sure how the jurisdiction in question handles it, but we will charge the double permit fees on the structure plus any taxes that would have been p

    • I would assume it's less about being "licensed" and more about meeting code and having your plans approved by the city council and having your house reappraised to accommodate the increase in value (and thus increase in taxes).

    • Is this the first time you've ever heard of zoning laws?

    • It's like building any other structure, there's codes and standards it needs to be built to in order to be safe. Unfortunately a lot of those have resulted from lawsuits along the lines of little kids being able to wander over and fall in from the neighbors backyard. Plus anytime you have water and electricity in such close vacinity (pool lighting/circulation) it's a good idea to make sure the builder is making it up to code.
    • Yeah, specially since 'license' is not used in the body of the article. Instead they use variations on 'permit.'

      Misleading, inflammitory headline; a pool license is bogus. A permit to build a pool is standard fare.

      Oh, wait, I just saw the favicon...that explains it.

  • by molo ( 94384 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:28PM (#33126248) Journal

    It is the government office saving money instead of hiring a plane to fly over the neighborhood and take pictures. Or are you going to say that you have a right to privacy from the air? Get real. A $300 fine ($75,000 / 250) doesn't sound excessive for a permit violation either. Now all those pools also need to be inspected for possible code violations. That is where it might get expensive.


    • by Mastadex ( 576985 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:29PM (#33126298)

      I agree. They are essentially DOING THEIR JOB but with the added efficiency of Google Earth. I don't see a problem here.

      • agreed.

        Evil but legal.

    • by langelgjm ( 860756 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:38PM (#33126518) Journal

      This story reminds me of Adam Smith's reasoning of why properties in his time should have been taxed based on the number of windows, rather than hearths: both for privacy reasons (you can count windows from the outside, whereas hearths require entering the home) and to make evasion harder. When tax assessment time came around, people would brick up their hearths. Sure, you could brick up windows, but since they could be observed any time without you knowing, it makes it much harder to do.

      But yeah, maybe we have a problem with the fact that the pool requires a permit, but that's a different issue. Hopefully sitting in an office using Google Earth means they're not driving around wasting gas, or hiring a plane as you mentioned.

    • Or are you going to say that you have a right to privacy from the air? Get real.

      I most certainly do think I have a right to privacy "from the air." The concept is called curtilage and it means the space around your residence where you have a legal expectation of privacy. Just having a fence which is high enough to stop people from looking into your yard is enough to make your yard curtilage. The government is barred from unwarranted searches and seizures within this area. Just because they are flying in a

  • Can somebody look up the Google Earth TOS and see if there’s anything in it that would be relevant to this sort of use?

    I’d do it myself but I’m a bit busy at the moment.

    • Re:TOS? (Score:5, Funny)

      by Loco3KGT ( 141999 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:43PM (#33126634)

      busy filling out the paperwork to get your (already built) pool approved by the city council?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by in10se ( 472253 ) []
      3(a) defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others;
      3(e) upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any other content, message, or communication prohibited by applicable law, the Terms or any applicable Product policies or guidelines;

      4(b) By using the Products, you do not receive any, and Google and/or its licensors and users retain all ownership rights in the

  • This sort of thing may stimulate a wider interest in practical application of camouflage techniques.
    • This sort of thing may stimulate a wider interest in practical application of camouflage techniques.

      "Ah... It's not a swimming pool. It's a reflecting pool. I checked the rules. There's no rule against putting in a reflecting pool. It's very tranquil. You'd like it."

  • by LostCluster ( 625375 ) * on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:29PM (#33126272)

    A few years ago I was in a speeding ticket dispute (that I eventually won) where the traffic court was using Google Maps' Satellite View in order to count the number of mailboxes along the road to determine the number of houses on the road, and therefore to determine if the area was "densely populated" and therefore qualified for a lower unposted speed limit.

  • Oh no... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by The MAZZTer ( 911996 ) <<megazzt> <at> <>> on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:29PM (#33126288) Homepage

    ...the government caught me in the act of doing something illegal using public information that's been available for years now! Bad Big Brother!

    Permits are hard to get around here to do anything though. Which sucks. But if you choose to break the law, you should be aware of the potential consequences and the chance of getting caught. Given the public images of homes it should not be too surprising that something like this would happen eventually.

  • Interesting (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MBGMorden ( 803437 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:29PM (#33126300)

    While not Google Earth, as a county government we look at our own aerial photos (added to a GIS layer) to find unpermitted structures as well (mostly just to get them on the tax books - if someone builds without a permit we often have no idea that the structure exists, so it goes untaxed).

    While I'm sure it's a LONG ways off, at a recent conference I was at one of the larger city-level governments in the state was actually discussing the possibility of using a form of sonar to track this. I'm not sure if they're just in the brainstorming phase or what, but from what he said the idea was to use it to map out the structures in the city at periodic intervals. Then between intervals you compare to the previous sweep to see anything large that's been added or removed. You filter that against what parcels have not had a permit issued, and you get a good source of info to start following up on construction without permits.

    The same city had recently installed various microphones in spots around the city to auto-alert the police department when it detected gunfire (this is already in place, not conceptual). Apparently it is fine tuned enough to be able to tell the difference between an actual gun and things like fireworks and the like.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by tacarat ( 696339 )
      Please mod informative. Just curious what state/towns are at this level of sophistication. I'm also moderately worried about needing a police auto-alert for gunfire >.>
  • When a pool fails... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by crow ( 16139 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:31PM (#33126346) Homepage Journal

    I had a friend who had a neighbor with an unlicensed above-ground pool. I'm not sure what went wrong, but one day it collapsed, sending all of the water into my friend's back yard, destroying everything there. Building permits are required for good reasons, and they're usually dirt cheap (less than 1% of the project cost). If you're hiring a contractor who doesn't get a building permit, then they're probably not doing it to save you money, but to allow them to skimp on important building code details that might end up costing you a huge amount.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      So if the pool had been licensed then the water wouldn't have done as much damage to your friends back yard when it collapsed?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Don't have any experience with pools, but I can tell you that building inspectors are, in general, pretty mediocre. They will approve the most bizarre plans, and then suddenly become as tough as nails over the most ludicrous things. Someone once told me that building inspectors are usually failed contractors, and I believe it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mellon ( 7048 )

          This may be true where you live, but I've had quite good experience with building inspectors being thorough. Point being, it's true that merely getting a permit approved and the inspections completed is no guarantee that the building is safe, but it's an additional opportunity for someone to notice a mistake. And a builder who's expecting an inspection and who isn't naturally careful will be more careful in anticipation of the inspection.

          E.g., I know of a building project in Oracle, Arizona, where the i

      • by Kenja ( 541830 )
        Ideally they would have said "no license for you till you get nails. No, staples wont work".
      • by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <> on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @05:39PM (#33130758) Homepage

        So if the pool had been licensed then the water wouldn't have done as much damage to your friends back yard when it collapsed?

        Without knowing what went wrong, I'd wager the scenario could run like my what happened here a few years back...
        A guy decided to put in a new driveway, and to keep it level carved away part of the foot of a hill. The hill started to slide a little bit, so he built his own six foot tall, thirty foot long retaining wall out of concrete blocks and without benefit of a permit or inspection. Problem was, not only did he not tie the courses together, he also didn't anchor the wall back into the hill, and he didn't provide drains behind the wall. All of which are required by code, should have been specified on the plans submitted for the permit he didn't have, approved by the county engineer as part of the approval process he didn't go through, certified as performed by the licensed contractor he didn't hire, and inspected by the county after completion...
        Within a few weeks the county found out about this (I don't recall how) and yellow tagged the house. (Which means the house could not be occupied until the work noted on the tag, in this case replacing the wall, had been properly completed.) A few weeks later, in defiance of the yellow tag, the man moved back into the house because he "didn't want his family to spend Christmas in a hotel". Four days later, during a normal (for these parts) winter rainstorm, the weight of the hill and accumulated water collapsed the wall - and the ensuing mudslide wiped out the house and killed the man, his wife, and three of their children. The only survivor was a teen aged daughter who was at a friends Christmas party.
        So the issue isn't that the water wouldn't have done as much damage when it collapsed, but that the odds are if the pool had been properly built it would have been less likely (much less likely) to collapse in the first place.
        Not to mention, that most home insurance policies won't cover damages caused by un permitted construction. Nor are you left with any recourse - you'll be liable if you're party to a suit that arises subsequent to any damages caused by failures in such construction.

  • by socz ( 1057222 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:33PM (#33126404) Journal
    The speaker moxie said basically, what the gov't had been trying to do but would never be able to is what google is doing now. To put it in perspective, he asked: "Who do you think knows more about the people of Iran? It's government, or google?"

    So for all the good google does, this is one small way that it hurts some. That's not to say though, that the people who have these pools are innocent. Yes, we're a capitalistic society as many think, but no, you don't pay to have the roads you drive on to be paved, you contribute like everyone else does in small amounts. And without those small amounts almost nothing would be possible as we get much more and further by working together than alone. []
  • by Defenestrar ( 1773808 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @01:38PM (#33126496)

    Do you have it in a fenced in back yard?

    What about the "traditional" points of view but at other wavelengths? If your house is transparent to spectrum X - should you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in say your bedroom?

    Some photography laws allow for pictures of private locations from the street, but not using telephoto optics - does that apply to satellites and airplanes use? Perhaps you could make the jurisdiction argument, but if your "camera" is located outside of the jurisdiction, but the person pulling the shutter is within the jurisdiction (e.g. programmed flight, camera, and receives images) does that muddy the waters?

    I don't think this excellent reference [] even addresses the issue at hand.

  • by hypergreatthing ( 254983 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @02:20PM (#33127376)

    Pool covers... that look like grass!
    Someone make them now, they'll sell like hot cakes. Also pool canopies that look like lawn from above too.

  • by realsilly ( 186931 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @03:15PM (#33128436)

    ... which is vital. If a person builds a pool and skips out of the permit, they could find themselves in dire straits should someone ever drown in said pool. If proper safety specs are not met, the pool could be dangerous in how it was designed and built. And in some cases, if a person is too cheap to get the permit, they're likely getting the pool for as cheap as possible.

    Permits are necessary for displacement of land. If you remove trees to put in your pool, you're losing one of natures ways of keeping erosiion under control and other environmental issues that might take place. When a neighborhood gets some massive flooding, and the county has worked to ensure proper drainage for that home and neighborhood and now someone comes along and builds a pool without considering that drainage, that pool may upset the designed flow and cause flooding in certain circumstances.

    Besides, permits that they are dodging, their may be additional taxes and proper insurance that is required. People who do this are very selfish.

    I think (not sure) that city govt. personnel don't have permission to just walk onto someone's property even if they suspect unlawful building. Google Earth allows the city/county employees to perform the jobs that we, the tax payers pay them to do without violating any laws.

    I'm perfectly happy that they have found a safe and legal way of enforcing city/county ordinances.

  • by handy_vandal ( 606174 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @04:26PM (#33129620) Homepage Journal

    Child falls into pool, drowns. Worse yet -- child playing in pool, pool drain unsafe, disembowels child by sucking out colon through anus -- not funny, happened in my home town recently, the girl died a couple of days later.

    Are towns on a money grab? Probably.

    Is it true that there is "too little discussion about community norms" ...? Of course not -- go surf blogs, tweet some tweets -- this world is not lacking for discussion.

  • by horza ( 87255 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @04:41PM (#33129852) Homepage

    So the US pay officials to spend hours poring over Google maps to find violations, whereas India sets up a Facebook page to report violations and instantly rakes in the dough. Knowing suburban neighbours, I'll give good odds as to which method will yield better results for pool violations...


  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Tuesday August 03, 2010 @05:02PM (#33130164) Homepage Journal

    In other news the sales of swimming pool sized military style camouflage meshes [] is up in the New York area...

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