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Big Brother is searching you

Mike Elgan | Aug. 24, 2010
Technology should not be used to exempt government agencies from the Constitution. Quite the opposite. Technology empowers governments to violate our rights with ruthless efficiency.

While everyone is concerned about privacy violations from Facebook Places, government agencies may be using powerful new technology to violate 4th-Ammendment protection against unreasonable searches.

Here's what the 4th Amendment says: "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."

The spirit of and the letter of this amendment is that government agencies are not allowed to go on hunting expeditions looking for violations or transgressions. If government officials want to search your property, they have to demonstrate good reason why they suspect you of committing a crime.

Let's say a small town wanted to crack down on swimming pool permit violations. If local police went house to house, telling people they were going to look for swimming pools in everybody's backyards, nobody would accept this because it would clearly violate the 4th Amendment. However, if you do exactly the same thing using cameras in space, it's somehow OK.

The town of Riverhead on Long Island used Google Earth to search all back yards in the town for swimming pool transgressions.

They found about 250 pools built without permits and collected about $75,000 in fines. Critics say they did it for the money, but city officials said they're concerned mainly about safety.

There's no such ambiguity in Greece. Greek officials are spotting undeclared swimming pools -- and they're definitely doing it for the money. Faced with a budget crunch, Greece's government is using Google Earth to hunt for swimming pools, giving them a justification for collecting extra taxes.

The idea is: Hey, we need more money. Let's go find some.

The Greece example is similar in that respect to the use of Google Earth in the U.K. by fish thieves. In at least 12 documented cases, exotic-fish thieves used Google Earth to find backyard ponds. The crooks broke into the yards and stole expensive live fish that they intended to sell for big bucks.

The purpose of the 4th Amendment is to prevent the U.S. government from doing what Greece's government is doing, which is essentially what U.K. fish thieves are doing: Using arbitrary searches to hunt for opportunities to take something away from people.

Here's the problem. If one town sets a precedent that's it's OK to violate 4th Amendment protections as long as you use satellite imagery, then any government can do the same for any reason. And the technologies and methods for doing so are becoming very sophisticated.


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