Is Google Earth data reliable enough as evidence in an Iraq murder trial?

This is definitely an original use of Google Earth:

Judge Allows ‘Google Earth’ To Be Used In Marine’s Trial

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — A military judge ruled Thursday that a popular satellite-imaging program can be used at the trial of a Marine accused in the death of an Iraqi civilian to pinpoint locations relevant to the killing. […]

Military prosecutor Capt. Nicholas Gannon said each of Pennington’s descriptions of the area were “fair and accurate,” and that the images were “merely an electronic representation” of Hamdania.

But military defense attorney Maj. Dale Saran argued Google Earth was not a fair and accurate representation at the time of the incident, claiming the images could be manipulated.

“The government wants to put in a moving map display,” Saran said. “It’s not the same as a photograph. To say this is nothing more than a blowup photo is really stretching things.”

While I think Google Earth is a compelling presentation tool in almost every setting, I definitely get queasy when somebody’s judicial fate hangs in the balance based on the accuracy of Google’s data. And that’s because we know for a fact that what’s there today on Google Earth in Iraq is different from what was there before.

As for imagery on Google Earth possibly being manipulated: Google itself never doctors imagery. It prefers instead to remove offending tiles in their entirety and replacing them with older ones (as it did in Iraq). We have no such guarantees about Google’s imagery providers, however. The Dutch supply censored imagery, and several US state-level providers are similarly paranoid. There are no guarantees either that imagery is not doctored by sources to camouflage censorship, much as the Swedes do (though mercifully, that imagery has not made it into Google Earth).

In sum, I would much prefer it if law courts continued to restrict the use of mapping tools to those vetted by GIS professionals, who can accurately provide context for the maps and imagery used in court, including their dating, sourcing and reliability. This may be a moot point in the case of something as simple as a property dispute in the US, but when it comes to a murder trial and data from a war zone, I really don’t think Google Earth should be a reference — at least not until the metadata for its imagery is a lot more complete and transparently reported.

2 thoughts on “Is Google Earth data reliable enough as evidence in an Iraq murder trial?”

  1. It is kind of creepy to think Google Earth imagery could be leveraged as actual evidence in a court – but – if used strictly as a presentation tool, and the dates of the imagery and area of interest is made absolutely clear, then I can see where it might be practical. One of the things I’ve been concerned about with the use of satellite imagery in courts of law – is that if the dates aren’t accurate to the dates of the charges, then there is a risk that it can add a misconception, or confuse a jury enough to cause an injustice – if a prosecutor does not establish the facts concerning the imagery collect.

    I’ve seen some cases, such as on Court TV, where a prosecutor makes no note to the jury of when an image has been collected prior to questioning a witness who is also being asked to reference a remotely sensed image. To me, that’s highly disturbing, but depending on the questions being asked. So far, I haven’t seen a case where the presentation was being used as an actual photographic evidence – but rather a presentational tool to gain a general visual perspective in addition to answers given about a location.

    So in this sense, I think I’ve answered my own questions – in that it would depend if the imagery is being used as direct photographic or forensic evidence vs. a presentational tool. (Even though there could be some potential for psychological effect of the latter if used unwisely.)

  2. Contrary to the above poster, I would absolutely not rely on Google Earth to resolve a property dispute, since the essential fact that the case hinges on is precise measurement of land and boundary lines. I would, however, rely on it in a murder case where the only thing it would really serve to do is illustrate what other witnesses have already testified to.

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