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Google Earth Satellite Imagery Can Be Used Against You in a Court of Law

It "merely depicts a scene as it existed at a particular time."

An office lady checks out the Indian map on Google's satellite image service on a web site in Hong Kong, 18 October 2005. Indian military analysts are divided over whether Google's satellite image service, which the president has warned could help terrorists find targets, poses a serious threat to national security. Indian President Abdul Kalam has raised the alarm over the US-based search engine's website, launched in June, which allows users to access sophisticated images of sensitive military and political sites. AFP PHOTO / Laurent FIEVET (Photo credit should read LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images)

A federal appeals court held this week that Google Earth images and other similar content could be presented as evidence in a trial.

Image credit: tanuha2001/

The panel of judges for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "because a Google Earth satellite image, like a photograph, makes no assertion, it isn’t hearsay. The panel also held that a tack placed on the satellite image by the Google Earth program and automatically labeled with GPS coordinates without any human intervention isn’t hearsay."

Though the panel acknowledged that "machine statements might present evidentiary concerns, including malfunction or tampering," it wrote in a court document that those concerns could be "addressed by rules of authentication."

The appeal, in this case, was made by defendant Pasiano Lizarraga-Tirado, who was a arrested in 2003 by a border patrol agent and charged with illegal reentry to the United States as an illegal alien from Mexico. Lizarraga-Tirado, in his initial trial, testified that he had not reentered the U.S., but was on the Mexican side of the border. One of the agents who testified in court had a handheld GPS device at the time of the arrest and used the location information presented by the Google Satellite image to confirm the man was in the United States.

"The satellite image introduced at trial depicts the region where defendant was arrested. It includes a few default labels, such as a nearby highway, a small town and the United States-Mexico border," Judge Alex Kozinski's opinion on behalf of the panel of judges explained. "It also includes a digital tack labeled with a set of GPS coordinates. Agent Garcia testified that the GPS coordinates next to the tack matched the coordinates she recorded the night she arrested defendant. "

Lizarraga-Tirado's defense, which was overruled this week in the appeals court, was that the satellite image and the tack on the map were "impermissible hearsay."

"In defendant’s view, the satellite image is hearsay because it asserts that it 'accurately represented the desert area where the agents worked,' and the tack and coordinates are hearsay because they assert 'where the agents responded and its proximity to the border,'" Kozinski wrote.

Citing previous court cases that ruled a photograph was not heresay because it "merely depicts a scene as it existed at a particular time," the panel of judges believed the same to be true for a Google Satellite image.

"Because a satellite image, like a photograph, makes no assertion, it isn’t hearsay," Kozinski wrote.

The tack mark on the image, however, does make an assertion and if it was placed manually, it could be labeled as heresay. But, in this case Kozinski wrote, "[b]ecause there was no evidence at trial as to how the tack and its label were put on the satellite image, we must determine, if we can, whether the tack was computer-generated or placed manually." Tacks depicting a certain location that are placed by Google's computer program, Kozinksi noted, are not considered hearsay by the panel of judges.

Other Google image services, such as its Street View option on its maps, have been used in court cases as well.

(H/T: Computerworld)

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