It's amazing what you can find on Google Earth

What can you see?: Google Earth has provided solutions to several crime puzzles.
What can you see?: Google Earth has provided solutions to several crime puzzles.

As I ride my e-scooter through Warsaw and past the bronze statue of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, I start to wonder what he would make of one of our modern conveniences. As Alistair Crombie, the Australian science historian, once noted, Copernicus was "the supreme example of a man who revolutionised science by looking at the old facts in a new way."

Copernicus, born 546 years ago, is best remembered for the publication of his book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which proposed that planet Earth did not sit at the centre of the Universe but, in fact, rotated around the Sun. The Catholic Church banned the book for over two hundred years.

Another famous Polish scientist, Marie Curie, observed that the work of pure science can lead to other benefits. We are seeing that with a humble little tool many of us use every day without a second thought. Google Earth.

There is no doubt that the founders of Keyhole Inc., the company eventually purchased by Google to create Google Earth, were visionaries, but in their wildest dreams I don't think they could see that one day their technology would be used to solve cold cases.

What?

The number of mysteries and crimes solved by Google Earth is quite staggering. Remember that Google Earth is nothing like you see in the movies where a user can log onto their PC and, in real time, make a satellite track a car as it speeds across the Nullarbor. Satellite images are usually between one to three years old and Street View updates can be several years out of date.

Despite the obvious deficiencies, there are people out there, either bored or with an extreme fascination with Google Earth, that are looking for, well, anything. The most recent case saw the disappearance of William Moldt, 22 years ago, solved by a man browsing Google Earth. He noticed a submerged car beneath the waters in Florida and eventually alerted authorities who discovered William's body.

Back in 2015, a similar situation occurred when David Nile was found in his car in a pond in Michigan. He had disappeared nearly a decade earlier.

It is not just disappearing cars that have been spotted though. A criminal drug ring in Switzerland came up with the perfect way to hide their marijuana crop. Surround the drug plantation with a field of corn that grows so high the drugs can't be spotted...except by satellite! A ton of marijuana, literally, was discovered and sixteen people were arrested.

Government authorities are also using the modern tool. In Athens a permit is required to build a swimming pool. The internal records indicated there were only 324 pools throughout the suburbs - which seemed incredibly low. Lacking the manpower to go door to door, the authorities turned to Google Earth - and found more than 16,500 undeclared swimming pools! The unpaid taxes were not quite enough to reverse the Greek government-debt crisis but they delivered a significant injection to local authorities.

One Italian man reported to authorities that he sold his villa for 280,000 euros and paid the resultant tax. A quick inspection on Google Earth showed that the supposedly small villa was a huge complex in a prime location. Investigators found the selling price was so high that the taxman was owed more than seven million euros!

I love the technology in Google Earth but my use is for typically mundane purposes but if you have the inclination and the time, use the incredible power that is at your fingertips and tell me the most interesting thing you have noticed on Google Earth at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology.