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 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.
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.
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.