How law enforcement uses Google Earth

Service helps police see what pot growers and property tax cheats are doing, as well as provide public with important traffic data. Images: Google Earth eyes the law

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
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."