Saturday, November 6, 2010

The taxman in the sky

From the 01 November 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Many look at websites that share aerial imaging technology as a fun way to see what their home and community look like from the air. Little do they know that various governments around the world are using it for less amusing purposes. Sites like Google Earth and Bing Maps are being used as tools to find so-called "tax cheats" and individuals that willingly or unwillingly sneaked past the building permit process.

The nation of Greece has used the technology to enforce its wealth tax by scanning suburbs in an effort to find pools, villas, and vehicles that, according to Greek officials, certainly couldn’t be afforded or maintained by recorded income levels. In its initial round of searches for swimming pools, Greece found 17,000 pools when only 324 had been claimed by taxpayers. Enforcing the tax code through such investigative measures netted the country 1.8 billion Euros in back taxes and fines during the first 6 months of 2010.

Here in the States, many municipalities are following Greece’s lead. In Riverhead on Long Island, Google Earth is also being used to find swimming pools, specifically those that were erected without town notice or do not meet the town’s building code. In that town of 27,000 people, about 250 unregistered pools were discovered. The homeowners were forced to make their pools compliant and, of course, pay Riverhead mightily for their permits.

With nations like Greece (whose financial descent is being mirrored by the United States of America) and communities like Riverhead (the size of which is similar to many communities across the country) seeing great success with aerial surveillance, many more government entities are following suit, playing around on the computer and subsequently playing financial hardball with property owners as a way to increase revenues.

To see how pompous they are in this matter, refer to Pennsylvania’s springtime television ad campaign (it can be found on YouTube) which played the Big Brother card. In that commercial, satellite imagery zoomed-in on a typical Pennsylvania home and a robotic narrative voice cited the homeowner for tax evasion, noting they know where he lives and that he has a “nice car” and a “nice house." The ad ended with a threat to Pennsylvania taxpayers that read “find us before we find you.” It was meant to scare commonwealth residents; no doubt it did.

With these developments in technology and the abuse thereof, even the most law-abiding and straight-laced Americans must worry that the government could be watching our every move or analyzing the details of our last bastion of personal liberty, our homes and lands, places once rightly thought to be private and free of government intrusion. Under normal circumstances the government needs just cause to enter a domain, some sort of belief that a crime has been or may be committed. With Google Earth, that has been thrown aside: Tax collectors and building inspectors don’t have any inkling whether a supposed crime is being committed or not, yet they are allowed to search a property unabated in hopes of finding a broken law. Basically, everyone is now guilty until proven innocent.

It’s obvious that by using aerial imagery our government is exceeding the limits imposed upon it. Unlike socialist Greece - which is a poor example for America to be following in the first place - our natural rights are recognized and protected by a Constitution that should be preventing such an invasion of our privacy because aerial intrusion is, without a doubt, an unreasonable search. So, until someone takes a government entity to the courts contesting it, we will continue to be spied on from above. Nowhere is safe from prying eyes anymore.

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