Spy in the sky zooms in on illegal backyard pools

ILLAWARRA councils are using eye-in-the-sky technology to identify illegal backyard pools and prosecute owners.

Wollongong and Shellharbour councils say they are using satellite imagery, including Google Earth, to research and investigate pools.

In some cases, officers use Google Earth as a check against council's own aerial photographs to confirm the presence of a pool before sending staff to inspect the site for compliance issues.

"The evidence gathered from this inspection may, after many other steps, lead to prosecution or a fine," a spokesman for Shellharbour council said.

But the method concerns privacy advocate and University of Wollongong associate professor Dr Katina Michael, who said the practice of using satellite imagery blurred the line between public and private space.

"While it is legal, I don't believe it is ethical," she said.

"Ratepayers should at least be made aware their councils are using this technology."

The Mercury put the question of satellite imagery use to Wollongong and Shellharbour councils after reports a council in the United States had voted against using Google Earth to check the legality of pools.

Wollongong infrastructure systems and support manager Kim Batley said using aerial photographs for basic council mapping, planning, regulation and enforcement was standard across all levels of government.

He said Wollongong council had used aerial photography for many years and recently utilised Google Earth satellite imagery in a safety campaign on backyard swimming pools.

"Council made use of Google Earth as part of its research, cross-referencing against our own property database, but it was not used in enforcement," he said. "The use of Google Earth is not a common practice but proved helpful in this particular project."

The council's environment and development compliance manager David Day said satellite imagery and aerial photography would only be used to investigate pools after a complaint was made.

He said aerial photography technology would form only part of an investigation and the council would not issue a fine based just on aerial images.

Shellharbour's spokesman said council staff also used Google Earth, but a physical inspection would always be carried out to determine compliance.

Dr Michael, who is a board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation and a Kiama resident, said there were potential privacy issues in using satellite imagery but admitted it had not really been debated.

"It's grey territory," she said.

Dr Michael said residents who didn't want their homes included in Google Earth imagery could email Google or write to them requesting its removal.

Citation: Shannon Tonkin, September 22, 2010, "Spy in the sky zooms in on illegal backyard pools", Illawarra Mercury, p. 13.