Can law enforcement use Google Earth without a warrant?

On the surface, it seems like almost a silly question: “Can law enforcement use Google Earth without a warrant?”. Because the imagery is so outdated (“new” imagery is typically a month or two old, at best), it seems that it would be of little value to police and prosecutors. However, a story from KPLU sheds a bit of a different light on it.

Here’s an abridged version of the story:

Defendant Errol Speed argues investigators subjected him to an unreasonable search when they reviewed aerial images–Google Earth images as well as aerial photos taken by the county for planning purposes–before obtaining a search warrant.

To Speed (the defendant), the images make all the difference. Without those images, he claims, investigators would never have seen the structure on his tree-lined 11-acre property.

“My property is surrounded by 150 feet of native brush for privacy,” said Speed. “It’s impenetrable. You cannot see even in winter, when the leaves are off.”

Speed contends the fact that investigators were looking at those images without a search warrant is a violation of his privacy rights under Article 1, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution.

He adds the magnified satellite images yield a closer look than what could be seen by the naked eye of anyone flying over his property, and are themselves invasions of his privacy.

San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord has no doubt these images should be allowed.

“They were always in a lawful place when they took those pictures. That’s essentially the position that we’re taking,” he said. “And these are photos of spaces not necessarily considered private. Nothing prevents flights over Mr. Speed’s house.”

You can read the full story on the KPLU website.

There have been similar stories over the years, such as when Riverhead, NY used Google Earth to track down residents with unlicensed swimming pools. We’ll likely see an increasing number of these stories as time goes on, as Google Earth continues to increase the freshness and quality of their imagery.

What do you think? Is this a good way to catch people that try to hide behind “impenetrable brush”, or is it an invasion of privacy?

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. Having not thought much on this issue prior to this post, I cannot speak of general awareness of the issue – or perhaps my own ignorance is an example of such – however, my first thought is that the question you pose should not in any sense be unexpected. Through popular media we are in a general sense aware of the possibilities of satellite imagery, and aerial photography has been around for over a generation. You only have to look up at night, to see numerous satellites passing overhead, even in the most remote of locations. Therefore, vertical privacy expectations should be slim at best. Indeed, the use of aerial photography to monitor tree-lines and property development is in no way a new practice. The following is a quote from Wikipedia detailing a legal case from 1986,
    ‘Because anything capable of being viewed from a public space is considered outside the realm of privacy in the United States, aerial photography may legally document features and occurrences on private property.’
    Though the distance at which the photos are taken has dramatically increased, once would expect that the same legal standpoint applies to satellite photography. The only difference in the modern instance is the ready availability of the data to all parties.
    Whether using Google Earth to catch offenders is indeed an invasion of privacy is a matter I will have to give further thought, however, if an individual has something to hide from vertical voyeurism, then I reckon it should be up to that individual to ensure cover, much as military airstrips use grass covered hangers. This should at least protect against Google Earth’s capabilities, if not against more detailed scans. In the case of drug cartels or others using camouflage netting and tree branches, however, it should be noted that there are algorithms to detect inconsistent foliage type in rainforests, so even with cover, security is not necessarily a guarantee.

  2. archangelmichael2 says

    Correction. Can the New World Order government use Google Earth to track down where Christians live and persecute them? Especially for Christians who actually do their best to live b moral values like “Thou shalt not steal or kill.etc?

  3. archangelmichael2 says

    On a side note I wouldn’t be surprised if The Battle of Armageddon is mapped on Google Earth when that happens as there will be a nation with a 200 million man army which China is the only nation capable of such an army since the 90s.

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.