Big Brother: Hamilton using Google maps to spy on bylaw violators

News Apr 14, 2016 by Mark McNeil The Hamilton Spectator

The state may have no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but the City of Hamilton has been taking a hard look at your backyard.

Since 2002, the city officials have been quietly collecting aerial photographs that allow enforcement staff to investigate breaches of bylaws, especially the age-old requirement that homeowners acquire a building permit before building a deck or some other construction project.

Images from past years can be compared to get an idea when a deck, pool or addition was built. If the structure wasn't there one year, and appeared the next, it means it was built sometime in between.

But Jorge Caetano, the manager of plan examination in the city's building division, says the information is never used to go on fishing expeditions for violators. It's only consulted after the city receives a complaint.

"We use it as a tool. We don't use it in place of going there in person to investigate, to see the property," he said. "At this point, we don't base enforcement on aerial photographs. We would have to go out there physically and inspect the property. We still have to carry out the proper investigation."

He said information from past aerial photographs could be consulted to verify whether a structure has been there for many years and was, say, built by a former owner.

But Paula Gardner, of McMaster University's Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, says it's a slippery slope, another example of the state using technology to keep an eye on us. And that's something that we should leery of.

"I think they are trying to diminish the value of the information," she said. "An image from the sky is a very strong piece of data in an investigation."

There is more to Google satellite photograph maps and street-view imagery than meets the eye, she says.

"We may like looking at our houses from a different point of view. It seems like magic. We're enchanted by this technology. But we forget it can be used as a spying device."

And while the information might not be currently used for fishing expeditions, what happens in the future? Maybe a cash-strapped city might send someone to take a hard look at the aerial photographs to increase the income generated from fines.

The issue of aerial surveillance maps arose during discussion by city officials about whether to create a pool enclosure bylaw. It was suggested that old aerial maps could be consulted to help determine when a particular pool was built, and from there it could be gleaned whether bylaw provisions should be applied.

A spokesperson from the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said the use of aerial maps would not appear to violate privacy rules: "As defined in Ontario privacy legislation, personal information means recorded information about an identifiable individual. Several IPC decisions have found that information about properties and businesses does not qualify as personal information as it does not reveal something of a personal nature about identifiable individuals."

Caetano noted there are major limitations in what can be gleaned from the photos. He said views are often obscured by trees. Things like pools, decks and garages can be seen but any personal details cannot.

A spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said municipalities are overseen by the privacy commissioner of Ontario. As for issues involving Google aerial maps, she said, "We haven't received any complaints regarding personal information and satellite images posted online, therefore we have not examined the issue in depth."

mmcneil@thespec.com

905-526-4687 | @Markatthespec

Big Brother: Hamilton using Google maps to spy on bylaw violators

News Apr 14, 2016 by Mark McNeil The Hamilton Spectator

The state may have no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but the City of Hamilton has been taking a hard look at your backyard.

Since 2002, the city officials have been quietly collecting aerial photographs that allow enforcement staff to investigate breaches of bylaws, especially the age-old requirement that homeowners acquire a building permit before building a deck or some other construction project.

Images from past years can be compared to get an idea when a deck, pool or addition was built. If the structure wasn't there one year, and appeared the next, it means it was built sometime in between.

But Jorge Caetano, the manager of plan examination in the city's building division, says the information is never used to go on fishing expeditions for violators. It's only consulted after the city receives a complaint.

"We use it as a tool. We don't use it in place of going there in person to investigate, to see the property," he said. "At this point, we don't base enforcement on aerial photographs. We would have to go out there physically and inspect the property. We still have to carry out the proper investigation."

He said information from past aerial photographs could be consulted to verify whether a structure has been there for many years and was, say, built by a former owner.

But Paula Gardner, of McMaster University's Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, says it's a slippery slope, another example of the state using technology to keep an eye on us. And that's something that we should leery of.

"I think they are trying to diminish the value of the information," she said. "An image from the sky is a very strong piece of data in an investigation."

There is more to Google satellite photograph maps and street-view imagery than meets the eye, she says.

"We may like looking at our houses from a different point of view. It seems like magic. We're enchanted by this technology. But we forget it can be used as a spying device."

And while the information might not be currently used for fishing expeditions, what happens in the future? Maybe a cash-strapped city might send someone to take a hard look at the aerial photographs to increase the income generated from fines.

The issue of aerial surveillance maps arose during discussion by city officials about whether to create a pool enclosure bylaw. It was suggested that old aerial maps could be consulted to help determine when a particular pool was built, and from there it could be gleaned whether bylaw provisions should be applied.

A spokesperson from the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said the use of aerial maps would not appear to violate privacy rules: "As defined in Ontario privacy legislation, personal information means recorded information about an identifiable individual. Several IPC decisions have found that information about properties and businesses does not qualify as personal information as it does not reveal something of a personal nature about identifiable individuals."

Caetano noted there are major limitations in what can be gleaned from the photos. He said views are often obscured by trees. Things like pools, decks and garages can be seen but any personal details cannot.

A spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said municipalities are overseen by the privacy commissioner of Ontario. As for issues involving Google aerial maps, she said, "We haven't received any complaints regarding personal information and satellite images posted online, therefore we have not examined the issue in depth."

mmcneil@thespec.com

905-526-4687 | @Markatthespec

Big Brother: Hamilton using Google maps to spy on bylaw violators

News Apr 14, 2016 by Mark McNeil The Hamilton Spectator

The state may have no business in the bedrooms of the nation, but the City of Hamilton has been taking a hard look at your backyard.

Since 2002, the city officials have been quietly collecting aerial photographs that allow enforcement staff to investigate breaches of bylaws, especially the age-old requirement that homeowners acquire a building permit before building a deck or some other construction project.

Images from past years can be compared to get an idea when a deck, pool or addition was built. If the structure wasn't there one year, and appeared the next, it means it was built sometime in between.

But Jorge Caetano, the manager of plan examination in the city's building division, says the information is never used to go on fishing expeditions for violators. It's only consulted after the city receives a complaint.

"We use it as a tool. We don't use it in place of going there in person to investigate, to see the property," he said. "At this point, we don't base enforcement on aerial photographs. We would have to go out there physically and inspect the property. We still have to carry out the proper investigation."

He said information from past aerial photographs could be consulted to verify whether a structure has been there for many years and was, say, built by a former owner.

But Paula Gardner, of McMaster University's Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia, says it's a slippery slope, another example of the state using technology to keep an eye on us. And that's something that we should leery of.

"I think they are trying to diminish the value of the information," she said. "An image from the sky is a very strong piece of data in an investigation."

There is more to Google satellite photograph maps and street-view imagery than meets the eye, she says.

"We may like looking at our houses from a different point of view. It seems like magic. We're enchanted by this technology. But we forget it can be used as a spying device."

And while the information might not be currently used for fishing expeditions, what happens in the future? Maybe a cash-strapped city might send someone to take a hard look at the aerial photographs to increase the income generated from fines.

The issue of aerial surveillance maps arose during discussion by city officials about whether to create a pool enclosure bylaw. It was suggested that old aerial maps could be consulted to help determine when a particular pool was built, and from there it could be gleaned whether bylaw provisions should be applied.

A spokesperson from the Office of Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said the use of aerial maps would not appear to violate privacy rules: "As defined in Ontario privacy legislation, personal information means recorded information about an identifiable individual. Several IPC decisions have found that information about properties and businesses does not qualify as personal information as it does not reveal something of a personal nature about identifiable individuals."

Caetano noted there are major limitations in what can be gleaned from the photos. He said views are often obscured by trees. Things like pools, decks and garages can be seen but any personal details cannot.

A spokesperson for the Privacy Commissioner of Canada said municipalities are overseen by the privacy commissioner of Ontario. As for issues involving Google aerial maps, she said, "We haven't received any complaints regarding personal information and satellite images posted online, therefore we have not examined the issue in depth."

mmcneil@thespec.com

905-526-4687 | @Markatthespec