IRS using Google Maps to spy on taxpayers

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
Font Size:

Agents from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are using Google Maps as part of their tool kit to audit taxpayers and organizations, The Daily Caller has learned.

A redacted IRS letter dated Sept. 8, 2011 reveals that at least in one case the IRS’s examiners used photos of a property, obtained through Google Maps, as evidence to revoke the 501(c)(4) status of a homeowner’s association.

“The road consists of a two-mile loop around the inside of the property. It goes not have any sidewalks or bicycle lanes. The examining agent printed and copied a map from Google Maps (www.google.com) into this report,” states the letter.

501(c)4 is a tax-exempt status that includes certain “social welfare organizations,” “local associations of employees,” “homeowners associations,” “volunteer fire companies,” and certain lobbying organizations.

The IRS became mired in scandal in May 2013 after a report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that IRS staffers had singled out tea party groups seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status for extra scrutiny.

The agency did not return The Daily Caller’s request for comment for this report.

In formal guidance issued to IRS agents inspecting historical conservation sites, however, Google Maps and the online real estate database Zillow are mentioned as tools to help determine whether a property meets the regulatory requirements necessary to receive charitable contributions.

In addition to using freely available aerial and street photographs to survey property, agents are also encouraged to use search engines to research background information on suspected tax cheats.

“The Internet (using Google or other similar search engine) can be an excellent source of background information relevant to the taxpayer, done organization and appraiser,” states the agency’s manual.

The guidance, which is posted publicly online at the IRS’s website, was last revised on Jan. 3, 2012. An agency manual, effective Oct. 1, 2013, also lists Google, Google Maps, and a number of other Internet search tools to help agents spy on taxpayers.

In July 2012, according to USASpending.gov, the Treasury Department and the IRS awarded a $9,585 contract to Virginia-based information technology vendor ICS Nett, Inc. to pay for “Google Maps License and Maintenance.”

While Google Maps is a free service, users of the licensed “business” version are able to layer proprietary business data on top of Google Maps.

Google’s sale of licenses to an IRS contractor is curious, however, given the company’s professed outrage over government surveillance. Nor is the use of Google Maps by government tax collectors restricted to IRS agents in the U.S.

Government tax collectors in Lithuania, Estonia, Greece, and the U.K. have also used Google Maps and Google Street View against suspected tax dodgers.

The TaxProf Blog warned in 2010 that the practice was coming to the U.S. after witnessing it transpire in Greece.

Seeing the warning signs in Lithuania in early 2013, accounting firm Group 11 Advisors noted in a company blog post that while it was unclear as of then whether the IRS was using Google Maps and Google Street View to monitor people, it was engaging in electronic surveillance of “high-net-worth individuals[.]”

Such surveillance methods include the monitoring of Facebook posts, eBay listings and electronic credit card records.

“The added investigative capabilities made possible by technology makes it that much more important to ensure all necessary documents regarding assets are completed and filed according to IRS rules,” wrote Group 11 advisors.

The IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission also came under fire earlier this year for exploiting a 1980s-era law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), to monitor without a warrant the emails of individuals and organizations the agencies placed under investigation.

Privacy advocates at the Digital 4th coalition have been fighting to rein in the spying activities of both agencies by petitioning legislators and the White House to change the law so that government investigators will be required obtain a warrant for electronic communications.

As of 7:15pm ET on Friday, a petition on the White House website asking the Obama administration to weigh in on reforming ECPA had reached 60,362 signatures. The petition has until Dec. 12 to reach the 100,000 signature threshold required for a response from the White House.

Follow Josh on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+