Investigating with Google Maps

Ever needed to see what a building looked like before visiting the address?


Google is the go-to place for random information. From finding the owner's manual for the lawn mower that's refusing to start to looking up old significant others, most all of us have typed keywords into this or another search engine and been rewarded with more information than we can use. But Google is more than just a search engine. It can also be an investigative tool, and a threat to privacy advocates.

The Town of Riverhead, NY used images from Google Earth to locate about 250 homes with swimming pools installed without the appropriate building permits. When the town government contacted the property owners, most came in and paid the fees, which averaged $150 each. $37,500 isn't a bad return, given that the resource was free.

Google Earth and Google Maps offer overhead images of most of the world, although some are more detailed than others, and there's no way to tell how old the images are without some detective work. I can tell the image of my house is over a year old, as I had some shrubs on my property line removed last year, and the photo still shows them there. I know it's less than three years old, as the first time I looked at the image it showed a pickup truck that belonged to the previous owner of the house parked in the driveway. If I was to reconcile the features with other changes in the neighborhood I'm aware of, I could probably get the date of the photo down to a few weeks.

The level of definition and resolution varies from place to place. Generally, more populated areas have better photos, and those areas of special interest to the government can be spectacular. A few years back, I lived less than five miles from the National Security Agency in Ft. Meade, MD. The imagery on Google Maps of the apartment building I lived in is good enough to identify the makes of some of the cars in the parking lot.

Rural and state fire protection agencies are using Google Maps to examine property that might be threatened by a wildfire, and determine if the brush around the property has been cleared enough to meet fire codes. This kind of inspection would be difficult at best with conventional fire inspection methods.

Another, more controversial feature of Google Maps is Google Street View. For the past several years, Google has sent crews all over the world, driving vehicles with special multi-view cameras mounted on top. These cars drive down the streets of the community, recording everything visible from the street at every angle. When the data is synchronized with Google Maps and uploaded to the web, it allows you to see the street-level view of any spot in the world where the camera cars have gone.

Ever needed to check what kind of premises was assigned to an address? Is 287 So. Webster St. in Pothole, FL a house or a mail drop? If Street View has surveyed it, you can take a virtual drive and see for yourself. Bring up the Google Map for the location and drag the little yellow "Pegman" icon onto the place you're interested in. If the icon won't "stick," there's no street view for that location. In my medium-size town, they've covered the main roads, but few of the residential neighborhoods.

Google is gradually adding aerial imagery that will permit "fly-through" views of locations. Instead of being limited to straight down and street-level views, you'll be able to see areas from any perspective by rotating the map in all three axes.

Not everyone is thrilled with having all this information available, of course. "Plain view" doctrine entitles anyone, including the police, to observe anything they can see from a place where they are lawfully entitled to be, but that doesn't keep people from being upset about it. Individuals have petitioned Google to remove images of their homes from Street View, and Google has generally complied, absent any great reason not to. People who appear in Street View images can have their faces blurred out, but it's probably a matter of time before someone is spotted in someplace they weren't supposed to be.

Is this kind of imagery too "Big Brother" for your tastes? It's one thing to have this great resource available, and another if you find your house pictured in Street View, and possibly identified as "where that cop that busted me lives" somewhere else on the web. These issues will resolve in their own time. For now, make use of it.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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