Using Google Earth to Find Unguarded Houses

UK teens are using Google Earth to find swimming pools they can crash.

How long before someone finds a more serious crime that can be aided by Google Earth.

Posted on June 25, 2008 at 6:09 AM • 64 Comments

Comments

ThomasJune 25, 2008 6:36 AM

A couple of month ago a german tv news magazine talked about Google Earth (or Google Maps) to be used by criminals to find out how to approach house unseen.

One more reason why the internet is evil ;)

bobJune 25, 2008 6:44 AM

Its because of gun control. If homeowners in UK had guns this wouldn't happen (well, not after the first time anyway

TheDoctorJune 25, 2008 6:56 AM

@bob: Sigh !
I assume you meant it ironic.

In case that not:
- In case that the youth are unarmed a triggerhappy homeowner has the opportunity to kill a more or less innocent fool, if YOU could live with such a burden, I would have problems
- In case they are armed as well it's most likely that they are much better than you in shooting AND have much less scruple shooting someone and act much cooler than you an have the upper hand.

TheDoctorJune 25, 2008 7:01 AM

Back to topic:
EVERYTHING can be used for an evil cause, it's a question of the relative danger it inflicts on society compared to the benefits.

vwmJune 25, 2008 7:07 AM

Well, you can use Google to find pools, but you will not find out if they are _currently_ unguarded as Google Earth pictures are likely to be some years old.

AnonymousJune 25, 2008 7:08 AM

Aha, some more fuel for those who argue that closed information is better than open information :)

JohnJune 25, 2008 7:22 AM

Ban all swimming pools. That will stop it.
or monitor all searches on google and send SWAT around to places which appear to be doing suspicious searches.

Tremaine LeaJune 25, 2008 7:26 AM

@TheDoctor

What a bizarre conclusion to draw based on no information. You honestly believe an untrained and impulsive youth given to pranks is going to be a better shot and better trained than a responsible firearms owner defending their home?

You also seem to be positing that firearms owners are murderous thugs who would open fire indiscriminately. While I'm a raging cynic myself about other people, I don't for an instant suspect I'm surrounded by murderers who's only stumbling block is that they don't own a gun.

shadowfirebirdJune 25, 2008 7:49 AM

@Treamine Lea

I'm not sure it's that bizarre.

At the very least, the criminals are likely to have more practice shooting at live targets (assuming we are talking about real criminals here rather than kids who are after a free dip in a pool). I'm sure there are many responsible gun owners in the US that practice at the range every weekend. But I'm not sure that they are in the majority, and I would hope that even they would balk for a second or two before actually bringing themselves to shoot a person, armed or not.

Either way, which headline do you think represents the greater tragedy for everyone concerned: "home robbed by teens who checked google earth" or "teen killed in home-defense shootout"?

TheDoctorJune 25, 2008 7:49 AM

@Tremaine Lea: How much time do the average firearm owner invest in training over the year ?

I do not think "firearms owners are murderous thugs who would open fire indiscriminately", I think they are scared, laden with doubt whether the situation calls for an armed response and poorly trained.
But let's not hijack the thread.

dbrJune 25, 2008 8:24 AM

Most of the image-data I've seen on Google Earth is atleast a year old. Surely the abandoned houses might very well by un-abandoned by now, or even have been demolished and rebuilt in the time....

John HJune 25, 2008 8:24 AM

It's because of mantrap and spring gun control. If homeowners in UK had mantraps this wouldn't happen (well, not after the first time anyway).

John RidleyJune 25, 2008 8:28 AM

OK, everyone in town, spread a 20x40 foot blue tarp on your lawn before the next satellite pass and the kids will spend all week trying to figure out how those hundreds of pools got filled in and landscaped so fast.

PicadorJune 25, 2008 8:59 AM

How about spotting expensive items (e.g. sports cars) hidden behind fences? Or spotting rooftop doors that could be used for break-ins?

AnonymousJune 25, 2008 9:02 AM

It's because of nuclear weapon control. If homeowners in the UK had nuclear weapons this wouldn't happen (well, not after the first time anyway).

lowkeyJune 25, 2008 9:10 AM

A few years back, my friends and I used GoogleEarth to find old titan missile silos facilities in Colorado (decommisioned in the 60s).

We then figured out the best way to park close to one location and sneak into it.

So thats trespassing on a former secure location. Does that count as a more serious crime? Or just more fun?

GuillaumeJune 25, 2008 9:18 AM

Alligators or piranhas in swimming pools should help protecting against such threats...

SZRJune 25, 2008 9:27 AM

Well the image of our house on google earth is at least 6 or 7 years old.

collinwhoJune 25, 2008 9:41 AM

People have been "dipping" for ages. The only difference is that they are using the internet to plan it instead of passing notes at school.

AndrewJune 25, 2008 9:56 AM

@ Anonymous, John, TheDoctor, Tremaine Lea, shadowfirebird and Bob

Criminals adapt to real and perceived countermeasures. The medium risk low consequences of an alarm summoning police is less of a deterrent than the low risk high consequence of being shot by a homeowner. This argument is as old as Beccaria and Bentham: do you get the best deterrence with certain punishment of low severity, or random punishment of high severity? Pickpockets working the crowds that gathered when pickpockets are executed could tell themselves, "Oh, I'm not that poor schmuck, I'LL never be caught."

In America it is a long-standing point of law, rooted in sad fact, presuming that a person who breaks into an occupied home does so only to hurt or kill the occupants.

Fortunately Google Earth is not real-time. The criminal must still bring binoculars to check the driveway for cars and the house for lights. (Hint: drop cars work for the police and can work for you too. Timers are also cheap.)

As for whether Google Earth is used for more serious offenses, certainly so. So is the Internet, cellular phones, wireline phones, pay phones, the 411 service, the public library and last but not least, public records. I recall one identity thief who accessed social security numbers from Department of Defense documents and ran amok destroying the credit of military officers until finally caught by a suspicious package delivery driver. (Generals don't usually live in apartments outside of D.C. . . .)

Shall we therefore turn off all these useful public services because someone, somewhere might be WRONG on the Internet? Um, I mean commit a crime with them.

Clive RobinsonJune 25, 2008 10:31 AM

A couple of things,

Firstly all though I hate the idea of gun toting home owners. I have been told by a couple of people from the U.S. That are pro gun ownership that,

1, Texas reserves no punishment for those who shoot those who trespass on their property.

2, Further that if two people trespass and the home owner shoots and kills one of them then the other is automaticaly charged with the murder.

3, Because of the above Texas has the lowest rate of home related crime in the U.S.

To somebody from the U.K. This appears utterly outrageous, can anybody say what the truth is of the above?

Secondly as far as I am aware from press bumf the google earth photos of the UK are not taken by anything other than small remotly controled aircraft.

derfJune 25, 2008 10:35 AM

Luckily, the satellite images aren't particularly sharp, but they can be used to find more isolated homes. The street view images can easily be used to pick out which houses don't have security alarm signs in the front yard, don't have burglar bars in the windows, don't have fences (possibly indicating a dog), have a window AC unit hanging out (easy entrance), have security lighting, etc.

Thing is, though, you can get better information with a map and a quick drive-by, so it's not that much of an edge to use Google's lack of detail and fuzzy images.

As for gun control, when facing someone that's broken into my home, I think I'd rather be the shooter than the shootee.

AnonymousJune 25, 2008 11:40 AM

If you stop and think about it for a mopment, enterprising taxi drivers have always had inside knowledge of when homes would be empty...

...when they drive someone to the airport (especially a family going on vacation) they usually can chat the apssenger up and find details abot duration of absence, etc.

...even better if they are picking up a couple to take them to a restaurant...

NostromoJune 25, 2008 11:43 AM

@Clive Robinson:

"1, Texas reserves no punishment for those who shoot those who trespass on their property."

Not quite, in the ordinary meaning of "trespass". Texas law doesn't allow you to shoot without warning someone who has merely walked onto your land.

On the other hand, it DOES allow you to shoot someone who has broken into your house, and that seems reasonable to me. It sure keeps down the number of burglaries.

That's the short answer. The accurate answer is of course more complicated, you can find it at http://www.texaspolicecentral.com/penal_code.html

JWJune 25, 2008 11:52 AM

@Clive Robinson

It's largely true, though 2 is a bit of a stretch. It refers to felony murder, which means if someone dies while you're committing a felony, you can be charged with murder. I believe felony murder is a capital offense in Texas, but I'm skeptical that this law has been used in this way.

As far as 1 and 3, Texas is by far not the only state which allows the so-called "castle doctrine" allowing lethal force to be used defending one's home. (Ironic for those of you from England, where there are actual castles, yet presumably no way to defend them.) I know Florida has the same law, and has extended it to defending your workplace (as in you-own-it, not you-work-there) and vehicle. Home invasions and carjackings are down there as well.

There are various types of castle doctrine laws. The strongest are the "stand your ground" laws, like those in Florida and Texas, where trespass and the belief you are in danger are sufficient. It's your property and you are entitled to stand your ground in its defense, with no duty to retreat. According to Wikipedia, Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee also have similar laws.

A further 19 states have weaker variants that require retreat under some, but not all, circumstances. These laws often require that people to be in your home rather than on your property, or require you to retreat to the farthest bit of your home first, or requiring them to commit some other crime besides trespass.

On the other hand, I think California probably has a law where if someone breaks into your home and you own a gun, you're legally required to give them your gun and apologize for being mad at them. :-)

As far as skewed international perspectives go, the stories we hear about people at home in England watching telly with no way to defend themselves watching their families getting clubbed to death by some big lads with baseball bats in home invasions make the problem sound positively epidemic over there.

I would even go so far as to say that it sounds utterly outrageous to those of us in stand-your-ground states. :-)

xd0sJune 25, 2008 11:55 AM

I recently re-read The Shockwave Rider, by John Brunner. I'd suggest to anyone reading this thread and wondering about how the availability of information like Google Earth might be effected by Government thinking, read it.

http://www.amazon.com/...

Kevin D. S.June 25, 2008 12:07 PM

City officials could use Google Earth to find pools not properly secured (where fences or other mechanisms are required by local ordinance). Yes, some may have installed fences after the image had been captured but use of Google Earth could help eliminate previously-compliant citizens.

Mark J.June 25, 2008 12:14 PM

Microsoft's maps.live.com's Bird's Eye View is sometimes more useful than Google Earth because it shows views of property from several angles and usually in much more detail.

schnerpJune 25, 2008 1:37 PM

@Schneier-sama
Is that a question or a statement? (sarcasm?)

@Everyone else
A physical attack on my premises is something I can (potentially) protect against. Imagine what could happen if terrorists (or Scientologists!) got their hands on the rest of the information Google possesses.

shadowfirebirdJune 25, 2008 1:41 PM

@JW:

Actually I think we're better than California ;)

Here in the UK if your house is broken into you are pretty much safe to attack the guy, providing you think you are personally in danger; that any weapons that you use are improvised; and that the force you use isn't completely unreasonable (so, no dropping a safe on any burglers armed with a rolled-up newspaper).

OTOH this isn't exactly enshrined in law; it's more a matter of precedent.

Petréa MitchellJune 25, 2008 3:14 PM

From a crime-and-punishment standpoint, I don't see that this is any different from passing a rumor around a school: "Hey, the Joneses are on vacation, let's crash their pool!"

I could see this making some people more likely to participate due to the depersonalization involved (now it's some random strangers, not the Joneses who you know).

Sol YoungJune 25, 2008 3:21 PM

I've been debating the security concerns aroung real-time GPS updates from mobile phones. Everybody I've talked to, after some serious thought, is still left wondering if there is a security hole created when announcing one's location (automatically and in real-time).

I have been writing on this topic for the last few days and with a few posts on http://solyoung.com.

I don't yet see how this presents a security concern, but your post today makes me think of mashups that could create well equiped thieves.

What do you think of mobile phone GPS real-time announcement?

Jon SowdenJune 25, 2008 4:52 PM

@JW : (Ironic for those of you from England, where there are actual castles, yet presumably no way to defend them.)

Well, ironically, England has relatively few castles, and even fewer in private ownership. Most of the castles were destroyed on order after one of the wars in England.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castles_in_Britain

Charles DeckerJune 25, 2008 5:22 PM

California Penal Code ยง 198.5 states that you must have "reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great
bodily injury to self, family, or a member of the household " before the use of force that would reasonable cause "great bodily injury". Considering the nutjobs around here, that wouldn't be that hard to substantiate.

A Yank in TexasJune 25, 2008 5:31 PM

Two friends of mine, one a cop, were having a "what would you do" talk about finding someone stealing their car. The non-cop friend said something like "you'd just shoot them, right?" The cop surprised me by framing the situation like this: "Who would you rather be explaining yourself to, your insurance company or a grand jury?"

Jonas GrumbyJune 25, 2008 6:27 PM

@ Shadowfirebird:
Well, perhaps, except now you have an MP that wants to ban pointy tips on kitchen knives because, well, knives are dangerous and really, you only need the cutting edge, right?

So, I wonder if Henkel's will be marketing their UK-centric Safety Scissors and Kitchen Knife Set anytime soon. :)

Here's a question, however, of a serious nature: Is the right to self-defense in your home only? We often read about shop-keepers getting into trouble for defending themselves against criminals (robbers, thieves, etc.), because it was some poor lad who, gosh, was such a good kid, etc.

Here, in Arizona, they sometimes get shot by shopkeepers. Problem solved, for the most part...until some other brain donor forgets that people in Arizona are armed and don't like being victims. :)

I, for one, have no problem with homeowners being armed. Or protecting their property. Don't want to get shot, don't do the crime.


As for the felony-murder rule, it's alive and well in Arizona.

Jonas GrumbyJune 25, 2008 6:28 PM

@ Shadowfirebird:
Well, perhaps, except now you have an MP that wants to ban pointy tips on kitchen knives because, well, knives are dangerous and really, you only need the cutting edge, right?

So, I wonder if Henkel's will be marketing their UK-centric Safety Scissors and Kitchen Knife Set anytime soon. :)

Here's a question, however, of a serious nature: Is the right to self-defense in your home only? We often read about shop-keepers getting into trouble for defending themselves against criminals (robbers, thieves, etc.), because it was some poor lad who, gosh, was such a good kid, etc.

Here, in Arizona, they sometimes get shot by shopkeepers. Problem solved, for the most part...until some other brain donor forgets that people in Arizona are armed and don't like being victims. :)

I, for one, have no problem with homeowners being armed. Or protecting their property. Don't want to get shot, don't do the crime.

That said, "A Yank in Texas" is right...there are some instances where discretion is the better part of valor, because even in a justifiable shooting, your life will be turned inside out and you'll spend THOUSANDS of dollars defending yourself.

As for the felony-murder rule, it's alive and well in Arizona.

WarLordJune 25, 2008 6:29 PM

Greetings

While common law is fairly clear that a criminal invading an occupied house means harm to the lawful occupants it is not completely assured that homeowner defending themselves with gun fire goes scot free.

That defending home owner better be able to make a a logical rational case that danger was imminent with retreat impossible or you may spend an ugly time in front of a grand jury explaining every second of your shooting incident

Lots of sturm and drang but facts not so much

Enjoy the journey

WarLord

Jonas GrumbyJune 25, 2008 6:46 PM

Not all states require retreat. In Arizona, if you are someplace you are legally able to be and you find yourself in a situation where self-defense (at any level) is imminent, there is no duty or requirement to retreat or attempt to retreat.

Many states are like this.

That's not to say that if you attempt to retreat it might be better for your case, but there is no duty to.

JilaraJune 25, 2008 7:35 PM

It will make a nice cross-reference to the fronts of houses on Google Maps. I know the photo on that one is no more than a couple weeks old, based on what's growing/blooming in the yard. But won't it be a surprise to find the former hottub full of Killer Banana Slugs of Doom...

NeighborcatJune 25, 2008 10:04 PM

Oh for christs sake. Teenagers figured out how to use technology to make what they were going to do anyway easier, or maybe find posher pools.

How on earth did this devolve so quickly into a discussion of gun rights and who you can and can't shoot? It's teenagers pool hopping! I did it, and I was a total nerd as a teen. So you have to call the pool guy, not exactly a loss worthy of a lethal deterrent.

I own guns. Anyone who has a pool, enters their front door to find wet footprints leading to the 'fridge, and thinks they need to go get a gun should definitely NOT own one.

David CantrellJune 26, 2008 6:18 AM

Is there any evidence that these pool shenanigans *actually* happen because of google earth? The story seems to have originated in the Daily Mail, which is notorious for making stuff up, but even they don't say that the police have confirmed that it really happens. Reading between the lines, it's perfectly reasonable to think that the Mail made up the story, then approached the police about it, and their spokesman - who had never heard of the issue before - spat out a content-free sound-bite, from which the Mail carefully extracted a sentence that, if not read properly, seems to back up the story.

zuracleJune 26, 2008 7:50 AM

Luckly, google map not yet support real time data like military satellite, but in the future it's maybe possible and means our privacy and security will be lost.

DKJune 26, 2008 8:14 AM

I've heard that serious crimes can also be aided by cars, mobile phones, books, money, telescopes... but most of all clothes and shoes.

Tim KJune 26, 2008 8:19 AM

From the news:

"Paedophiles have been seen buying blue plastic sheeting and causing a worldwide shortage in the plastics industry. It is believed that they have rolled the sheeting out in the shapes of pools to attract unsuspecting children once their gardens have been imaged on Google Earth"

A.JJune 26, 2008 9:16 AM

We're not seeing the other side of the coin here, folks.

Let's say that a thief, thinking himself clever, watches a rich man's house on GoogleEarth and notices when the rich man heads off on vacation. Thief then goes to the house with a moving van and starts to load up everything that isn't bolted down.

Now, whilst rich man is on the plane, he decides to have a peek at his home to make sure nobody's sneaking in to use the pool. Hmmm. What's that large van doing there? Quick phone call to the neighbour asking for help leads to neighbour calling the authorities in and the thief being outclevered by a fellow on an airplane halfway round the world.

How much would you be willing to wager that security companies are going to take considerable advantage of this free service offered by Google to monitor the properties they service? How many actual homeowners who have a little tech know-how, or know someone who does, will use it to keep tabs on their homes themselves? And how long before the police start thinking, "Hmmm. If only we were able to somehow see the murder taking place and the body being disposed of." and wonder if this service has archiving available?

Doug CoulterJune 26, 2008 10:53 AM

@AJ
By far the most insightful comment so far. Any tool is just that, and the more powerful, the more useful as well as more dangerous. That good old "double edged sword". It behooves us, and is a good function of this forum, to realize that nearly all tools can also be used for good! The trick is figuring out how -- and this is really a nice idea. Cue applause!

I'm a gun guy myself, and will resist this time in correcting some misinformation above.

But everyone who cares might want to read John Lott's "More guns, less crime" which is a very good academic study that has been thoroughly vetted by "both sides" of the issue, and not found wanting.
Violent crime in the USA has fallen 14 out of the last 16 years, as measured by the FBI -- despite ever increasing gun ownership, possibly in the hundreds of millions in this country. (over 10 million Remington 870 shotguns alone -- just one model)

The point of the gun is more often than not to prevent the crime, not shooting someone, which as someone stated above, will definitely turn your life inside out in a negative way. Worse if the perp is only maimed and you wind up supporting them for life from a civil court judgment, where things are not as rational as criminal court. Best case, they simply run away as desired. Claiming self defense is admitting a homicide; now you get to try and prove it was "justified". Very ungood.

I know lots of cops, as well as some crooks. Criminals, especially violent ones, aren't all that clever -- the clever ones become white collar criminals and steal millions/billions with no more than a slap on the wrist when caught -- typical fines are less than 10% of the theft amount! Less than one percent get jail time. Take $50 from a liquor store or mug someone, the penalty is far worse, and the likelihood of getting caught and jailed is far higher. This sort of crime isn't done by the "clever".

Anyone who has the brains and foresight needed to commit a "perfect crime" generally finds out it's more profitable and less work to start a business, and get rich that way instead. Worked for me.

The real danger of kids playing in your pool is that one will get hurt, then their family sues you for "attractive nuisance". My parents had one in Fairfax, VA and had to put up ugly fences and other expensive security measures to prevent this -- required by county law!

eep opp orpJune 26, 2008 12:07 PM

@A.J.

This is unlikely, as Google Earth images are not updated in anything remotely resembling real time.

andiJune 27, 2008 4:39 PM

It's because of land mine control. If homeowners in the UK had land mines this wouldn't happen (well, not after the first time anyway).

Ian EiloartJune 30, 2008 5:44 AM

Hold on a second! Trespass isn't a crime in the UK. It's not even a civil offence in most cases.

PaulJuly 2, 2008 1:14 PM

I download Google Earth to check my house that was built 5 years ago and.. what a surprise, the house was not there!!! not even the foundation!!!

farmerjoeAugust 5, 2008 6:50 AM

We live in a rural area and this new street view in Australia shows a close enough aerial shot to see every tree, every outbuilding, how far our house is to the next house. In a rural area you do not want this information available to the whole world as it poses a massive security risk both in terms of personal security and in terms of theft. This is a criminals paradise for rural areas. Normal street view is not a street view for us. On our "street" you can barely see our house we are so far from the road. On rural maps they flew over the house and invaded our pricvacy. And we DO NOT have people photographing us every day round these parts, not even once a year by people we do not know.
This has launched and we are supposed to be able to have our image removed but I can see plenty of rights of google (not using their images without permission.....ha ha ha ironic isnt it..they have taken our images without permission). CAN SOMEONE TELL ME WHERE WE CAN REMOVE OUR PLACE OFF THIS SCHEME. And why isnt this an opt in rather than opt out. Just who gave google permission to do this. Dont just argue it away on the basis of those who live in a flat or are happy to live in big brother. There are plenty of us concerned and I am one of them.

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