September 14, 2007 9:38 AM PDT

How law enforcement uses Google Earth

How law enforcement uses Google Earth
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When a Wisconsin man was arrested last October on suspicion of harvesting 18 pounds of marijuana, it was partly thanks to Google Earth.

The sheriff's deputies who pulled the man over found, in addition to what they estimated was at least $63,000 worth of pot, a GPS unit around his neck that was filled with a series of local coordinates, according to The Journal Times of Racine, Wis. After plugging those coordinates into Google Earth, the police were able to identify the location of several marijuana fields to which the man was allegedly connected.

While the cops would have been able to find the fields strictly based on the GPS coordinates, their use of Google Earth demonstrated just one way in which law enforcement agencies across the country and around the world are using the popular mapping service, both to fight crime and to offer valuable information to the public.

It's impossible to say just how many law enforcement agencies are actively using Google Earth, but one thing is certain: looking at Google's often detailed images is a lot cheaper than flying helicopters or planes, particularly in remote areas with cash-strapped police departments.

Google Earth law

Todd Fulton, a deputy in the Humboldt County, Calif., sheriff's department, said his agency is also using Google Earth as one piece in its marijuana interdiction activities, albeit a small one. "We'll use GPS (devices) and transfer the GPS data over to Google Earth," Fulton said, "to get an idea of the terrain we're dealing with."

That's particularly useful in a region like Humboldt County--one of the largest marijuana-growing regions in the United States--given that it consists of millions of acres of rough, hilly terrain. So being able to use Google Earth to do something that previously might have required flying around in a helicopter is much more efficient, Fulton suggested.

Of course, given the realities of Google Earth, it's unlikely that law enforcement would ever be able to use the service as the sole means of interdiction, despite the high degree of visibility it gives them.

One Northern California marijuana grower contacted for this story said that using Google Earth, he is able to see the exact location on his property where his plants are growing. But he's not worried that the police will be raiding his land any time soon.

"You would have to be really well-versed in the whats and wherefores," the grower said, "to be able to identify my (growing operation). My game is really well-obscured."

Chuck Herring, director of communications for satellite data provider DigitalGlobe, said he thinks that the quality of the imagery his company offers, and that of Google Earth, is good enough to spot things like large marijuana fields.

But the bigger problem, according to Herring, and to Frank Taylor, who runs the unofficial Google Earth blog, is that the images from the mapping service are not timely enough for police to use for law enforcement activity.

"I think it's useful, but there are some caveats," Taylor said. "The satellite photography in Google Earth is not live. It's not even recent. In most cases, it varies widely from as recent as a few months old to a few years old."

Taylor said some law enforcement agencies have access to the enterprise version of Google Earth, which may have more recent photography. Still, it's not likely that even that data would help police nab pot growers in the act.

Beyond pot busts
But several agencies have found other ways to utilize the service, both for law enforcement and for public service. He explained that there have been multiple cases of tax authorities using Google Earth to crack down on homeowners who have built additions to their property but who are not paying taxes on that new construction, Taylor said.

They've "begun using Google Earth imagery to help identify property builder violations where (people have) added onto their houses without reporting it," said Taylor, "and they've been using that to get them to pay tax penalties." Authorities can compare the satellite imagery to existing records and see where additions have been made illegally.

A more public service-oriented utilization of Google Earth by law enforcement is one undertaken by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. For the past two years, the agency has been providing Google Earth data showing the locations of fatal accidents--including those identified as being alcohol-related. The agency is also providing data showing the locations with the highest frequency of drunk-driving arrests.

Using that data, it's possible to get a sense of dangerous roads or intersections, including those on which people are more likely to be driving drunk, Taylor said.

"You can see where more drunk drivers have been found," Taylor said. "Those are places you might want to avoid on a Saturday night."

At the same time, some Google Earth users have found a way to use the service that law enforcement probably wishes they weren't. One database shows the location of hundreds of speed cameras--those used by police to automatically catch people speeding--all over Western Europe.

"It's one of the most popular (plug-ins) in all of Europe," Taylor said. "I can't imagine why."

See more CNET content tagged:
Google Earth, law enforcement agency, law enforcement, police, Google Inc.

18 comments

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What about "real" crime?? (i.e. Murder, Robbery, Rape, Theft)
All of the "crimes" being used as examples are lame excuses to hassle people.

Let's utilize law enforcement resources to fight actual crime!
Posted by sismoc (119 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Hi
You can't use google earth to do that. It was pretty clearly laid out
in the article why its not useful for that. It may be useful for
identifying especially crime plague neighborhoods - like compstat
does. But thats about it.
Posted by rapier1 (2722 comments )
Link Flag
Re: What about "real" crime?? (i.e. Murder, Robbery, Rape, Theft)
That's because the real crime mapping is done by GIS/Crime Analysts. See this <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/maps/" target="_newWindow">http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/maps/</a>

This google earth stuff, while convenient, is really just child's play in the crime mapping world.
Posted by rawkstar1 (1 comment )
Link Flag
I don't believe this for a second..
Why you ask...?
Because when I google earth my mom's house I still see the
motor-home parked in the driveway..
Important side note here: She sold the motor-home nearly 4
years ago.
Posted by imacpwr (456 comments )
Reply Link Flag
drones r comin
i like the way the article scums up the profile of the surveillee with all the magic hay talk then we get to the truth....cash. it's all about easy money...shootin fish in a barrel.

it costs money to precute "real crime". manufactured crime is profitabe and doesn't require a constitutional debate. no knock warrants and no due process courts and guilty inanimate objects like homes and land make cops proud to serve and protect.

but, hey, it's not all their fault...right. they are just doin their jobs..... with the help of a traitorous congress.
Posted by nedmorlef (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Who's to blame?
We are, because of the politicians we vote into office. Vote someone else in if you don't like what is going on.

Just remember, the best liars sound the best. The honest ones don't sound so good.
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
Link Flag
Google maps are old
The maps used by Google and other online satellite map websites are several years old. My house is nothing but dirt and there are no street names in Google Maps. I moved here over 3 years ago.
Posted by surfandwork (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Depends
It depends on where you look... and when. Google is constantly updating the imagery on the service. Some day they will update the image of your house, and then it won't be so old anymore... until you wait and it gets old again (of course).
Posted by mathmeister (210 comments )
Link Flag
yeah my ex's car
was still in the driveway and i've been divorced over 4 years.
Posted by nedmorlef (49 comments )
Link Flag
Oakland Crimespotting
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://oakland.crimespotting.org/" target="_newWindow">http://oakland.crimespotting.org/</a>

A good site using online mapping technology.
Posted by surfandwork (33 comments )
Reply Link Flag
dated images
I live in NYC and our building' satellite image is at least 3 years old - I know because we put a new roof on 3 years ago, and the old one's still in the photos.
Posted by Rita McKee (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I Agree
In my neighborhood, a complete shopping mall was finished 2 years ago and it does not show up on google maps at all.
Posted by LarryDeickman (2 comments )
Link Flag
Humboldt Pot Grows
I live in Humboldt County, and I have to say I am pleased to see this is being done. A lot of grows in our area are being done by a Mexican cartel on public and private timber land.

So being able to see them (And they are VERY noticeable from the sky) definitely helps.
Posted by koster_jay (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
down
Google Earth will be down in few months, or very limited.
Sarki - <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.sarki32.com/sozleri/peter-andre/index.php" target="_newWindow">http://www.sarki32.com/sozleri/peter-andre/index.php</a>
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.sarki32.com/sozleri/alison-krauss/index.php" target="_newWindow">http://www.sarki32.com/sozleri/alison-krauss/index.php</a>
Posted by sarki32 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Google eye
Big Brother is here and his name is google. Orwell was a prophet.
Posted by vgraybeard (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
If governments can petition Google to blur their secret bases, then citizens should also be able to petition for the blurring of their property to prevent the collection of evidence. Humans have every right to struggle for the cause of justice, even if those actions involve disobedience to the law.

Culture shouldn't be dominated by those demanding conformity in the experience of life, who then excuse the alienation and threat of rape offered by our "Correction" system. They attempt to coerce behavior by using the fear of suffering potential violence.

I expect every judge and police officer to apologize for all of the lives they had a hand in destroying. Their ego is likely to be hesitant to such a blow, like a stubborn captain going down with his ship.
Posted by Vapur9 (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
imagine is NSA maps were available, then you'd have serious quality shots, of beaches in the Med perhaps?
Posted by ITriedThisAlready (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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