Finding illegal pools with Google Earth

The town of Riverhead, NY, located on Long Island, has recently started using Google Earth to track down backyard pools that don’t have the proper license.


So far they’ve found around 250 pools that hadn’t applied for the necessary license. When contacted and given the choice between paying the fee or facing heavy fines, most owners have paid the fee. So far the city has collected around $75,000 in fees.
There are two ways to look at a situation like this. The first is that it’s a great use of Google Earth; the other is that it feels like big brother is watching. Which side are you on?
This situation reminds me of a few other stories we’ve written about in the past. Nearly five years ago, Frank shared the story of a tax assessor using Google Earth to spot changes in house lots (new buildings, sheds, etc) and making sure the proper taxes were paid on them.
The other story is even closer to this one; a pool guy finding prospective customers by only sending his mailing to homes that have pools. It took quite a bit of work to develop the list (search in Google Earth, determine the address, build the list), but now he has an excellent list of targeted prospects for his business.
Have you heard of any other examples like this? Let us know!

About Mickey Mellen

Mickey has been using Google Earth since it was released in 2005, and has created a variety of geo-related sites including Google Earth Hacks. He runs a web design firm in Marietta, GA, where he lives with his wife and two kids.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. Efficiency demands that a government use more economical resources to get a job done. Riverhead, NY could probably justify hiring an additional zoning enforcer to perform a physical census, but using Google Earth is much more cost-effective. Anything in plain view from an airplane (another expensive way to survey) is hardly big-brotherish.

  2. Well, actually I don’t think that Big Brother is watching you via Google Earth only. The countries have their own planes for making pictures. In fact in Germany there is a page called “” which has even newer pictures than Google Earth (at least for many areas).
    So I think in case they are checking these things they trust more their own data sources…

  3. Thanks for the great stuff.
    Its a good idea to find an illegal pool with the help of google earth.

  4. In Italy, where illegal buildings are very frequent, the government used satellite imagin to discover undeclared buildings (the project started few years ago).
    They found 2.000.000 (yes, two millions) of buildings!!
    Of course, it seems there are lot of error in the automatic recognition system, but in any case a lot buildings have been discovered.
    They don’t use Google Earth anyway 🙂

  5. I think this is a ridiculous violation of property rights. If you own the land, you should be able to do whatever the hell you want to on the land so long as you don’t damage your neighbors’ property. This just proves we are all slaves to the government.

  6. I heard that Greece is using Google Earth, too, to find buildings and pools without license.

  7. So what is the fee for? To add to local tax revenue? To pay for water use? Or to help offset the environmental impact of diverting millions of gallons of water into pools?
    Whatever, it’s pretty trivial compared to the utterly automobile dependent, rapid, and massive sprawl of US cities over the landscape so vividly revealed in GE to those outside the US. Has this prompted action from any authority?

  8. Stan Action says

    Pity those fool home “owners” who thought they owned their land free and clear. Oh well, $75k should pay the salary of one extra tax feeder for a year. Welcome to the land of the free.

  9. A licence just for a pool?
    Government can stuff themselves. RUBBISH.

  10. Works for me. With the proliferation of commercial imagery sources, both aerial and satellite, governments doing this kind of stuff is bound to happen. Using Google Earth is a sensible use of the technology, and it actually saves the taxpayers money since they don’t have to pay for an aerial photosurvey. These people chose to circumvent the rules, so if the government has found a way to catch them on the cheap, there’s no problem. And the Big Brother talk is a bit much, this is hardly the Feds doing this, it’s just a local government in New York.

  11. Middle-Island says

    This place (NY) is just full of ridiculous fees and surcharges to begin with. This just adds insult, no matter if it’s “illegal” or not. And people think sprawl only exists in the US? -please-

  12. Until people realize that they can’t really “own” the land (per Tom), but only have use of it for a while, inspectors and/or tools like this will be needed for the common good. A back yard pool may be okay, but would a fuel storage tank there be as acceptable?
    I’m all for using GE to cut costs for regulating people’s selfishness and stupidity. Even better though, using these kind of tools to zoom out from a close-up view of one’s property is a great way to put it in context within the larger community.

  13. Paul van Dinther says

    Blaming Google Earth for this is like blaming guns for killing people. As people kill people it is people that make other peoples life miserable.
    It is crazy that local government can charge a fee for things you do on your own land with your own money.
    Here in NZ they go even further as you must comply with strict pool fencing laws that are enforced by a hungry army of inspectors.
    The argument: A trespasser might fall in and drown!

  14. This is certainly an interesting debate, but one thing that’s been overlooked so far is the source of the imagery Google Earth is using. If you look at the bottom of the screen you’ll see a New York GIS copyright. This is tax-payer funded imagery, most likely flown for the purpose of planning and tax assessment.
    More info here:

  15. I wonder why those officials are not using live satellite imagery for this purpose. However this will not work if the pool lies under any sort of shade.

  16. N. W. Perry says

    Matt is right, the state of NY flies its own aerial imagery and then makes it available to Google along with many other agencies (and the general public). Government officials would have this info on hand with or without Google Earth. The only question, then, is why are they using GE when they have in-house capabilities for viewing this data?
    Now, if NY did *not* have its own imagery, then the Suffolk County govt. would be in a position to contract the services of an aerial imagery provider to obtain the pictures for its own purposes, and the question would then be, did Google complete the competitive bidding process properly to win this contract? That would be a best first step for any homeowner affected.

  17. A perfect example of our Gov’t. using our tax dollars to build a satellite to spy on us so they can make more money. Makes sense to me. I guess safety and compliance to bld. codes are primary objectives, so the 75 thousand dollars is just a surprising windfall for the town fathers.

  18. I believe they the government in Greece was doing this. While the populace was complaining, the government was finding all the unreported pools that people hadn’t been paying luxury taxes on.

  19. Great tool to locate illegal swimming pools. If they have good house and big pool why not they pay taxes for having pool ……… I wonder how much is luxury taxes for pool now a day?….hhuummm….

  20. How good do you want these satellites to get? Maybe they will be looking in your windows someday.

  21. Bill made a good point above. It is starting to border on creepy. Don’t get me wrong I love google maps and the technology, maps…and all it can do but you used to feel comfortable in your backyard that you had at least a little privacy.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.