Net Cast Over Drug Growers

VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA – Police have turned to satellite technology to hunt green-fingered crooks who grow marijuana in suburban backyards, on farms or on Crown land. With most outdoor crops maturing over the next four months, police are increasingly relying on Google Earth to identify cannabis crops, which can be worth up to $2500 a plant.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman has confirmed that Google Earth is a tool in the battle against outdoor growers and has helped with several recent investigations.

A senior member of Victoria’s drug tasking unit told The Sunday Age the Big Brother technology would be used more when satellite images were updated more frequently.

“The detail is extremely good and allows us to pick up small plots of cannabis virtually anywhere,” the source said. “The clarity is improving all the time, and I think it’s something we’ll probably use more down the track.”

Google Earth was used, after a tip-off, to confirm the cultivation of about 20 mature cannabis plants in the backyard of a north suburban home in March.

“We definitely have more sophisticated tools, so we often use Google Earth to follow up on ‘intel’ provided to us by the community. While technology has come a long way, alert neighbours are still probably our greatest resource,” the source said.

Police laid more than 1000 charges in 2006-07 for cannabis cultivation. The technology also enabled officers to monitor national parks and private farms, and detect changes in the landscape where native vegetation had been cleared for the illegal crops.

But the use of Google Earth as a law enforcement tool has raised privacy concerns among civil libertarians. Liberty Victoria president Michael Pearce, SC, concedes it is difficult to prevent new applications of satellite mapping but has called for tighter regulation.

“We think the most effective way of responding to these technologies is not to stop them, because we can’t, but to ensure that they develop in a proper legal framework,” Mr Pearce said.

He called for the Federal Government to respond to a recent recommendation by the Australian Law Reform Commission for a legislated right to privacy.

It was revealed in September that local councils were also using Google Earth and Google Street View to ensure ratepayers complied with by-laws and planning regulations.

City of Yarra Council used satellite mapping to identify illegal building activity in the municipality, which led to 175 notices and 35 prosecutions last financial year.

Yarra Mayor Judy Morton defended the practice, saying it had not been used to snoop on ratepayers. “The program is freely available to any member of the public to use, and there is no reason why council should not use this technology also,” she said.

“It is by no means the only tool used in these circumstances and is used more as a means of confirming initial concern …”

– Article from The Age

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