Website listing addresses and aerial photos of celebrity homes comes under scrutiny
Suppose you could look at the pool in back of James Cameron’s Malibu estate. Or admire the ornate garden at Haim Saban’s Beverly Hills mansion. Or check out the tennis court at Tiger Woods’ Florida home.
The website celebrityaddressaerial.com makes possible exactly that sort of high-tech snooping, listing addresses and aerial photos of the homes of hundreds of celebrities, corporate titans, politicians and others -- including Paris Hilton, Steven Spielberg, Warren Buffet, Matt Drudge, Steve Jobs and Kobe Bryant.
The site boasts that users “will be able to see behind the tall hedges, big gates and security systems” and “get unprecedented access to the sort of lifestyle your favorite celebrity can afford.”
To a lot of stars and their lawyers, that’s a big problem.
For nearly two years, the site operated with little notice. But Friday, a search warrant unsealed in Las Vegas revealed that one of the members of an alleged burglary ring had used the site, along with TMZ.com and Google Maps, “to gain intelligence on” the homes of young Hollywood celebrities, including Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. Members of the ring would then visit the location to search for a “mode of entry,” LAPD investigators said.
Suddenly, celebrityaddressaerial.com finds itself embroiled in an angry debate over the limits of privacy in the digital age -- the latest example of how new technology has eroded the line between the personal and the public.
The site offers information that a curious Web surfer could probably get with some digging, but it presents it in one place, easily searched, for $9.99 a month. An official familiar with the burglary ring investigation said that members of the group regularly used celeb rityaddressaerial.com until it started charging for subscriptions this summer.
Details of the site have met with consternation -- and even a bit of fear -- from celebrity representatives.
“Even if it’s based on public information, marketing it in such a way that could lead to people committing crimes like stalking or other offenses could potentially be actionable,” said attorney Mark Geragos, who has had numerous celebrity clients.
Geragos learned Monday that his home is on the list, as well as those of some of his clients.
“I have some big dogs on my property,” he said jokingly.
Attorney Neville Johnson, who specializes in privacy law, said the site and others like it amount to “a how-to handbook for stalkers and burglars.”
“This takes it to a whole new level,” Johnson said. “It’s bad, it’s immoral and, for right now, probably legal.”
Johnson noted that the law was changed to restrict access to California motor vehicle records after actress Rebecca Shaeffer was shot and killed by a stalker in 1989. The man, Robert John Bardo, had obtained Shaeffer’s address from a private detective who, in turn, had gotten it from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Bardo is serving a life sentence in state prison.
Celebrityaddressaerial.com’s webmaster, a resident of Canada who identified himself as David Ruppel, responded to questions via e-mail. He said he was shocked to learn his site had come up in the “bling ring” investigation and defended the site as a proper use of publicly available information.
“I have no control over how anybody uses the information on my website, but I put it out there for entertainment purposes or as a ‘star map,’ ” he said, adding that he’s a one-man operation.
Ruppel said he culls information daily by checking the latest property listings and sales, blogs and other news sources. He said he also uses maps, photographs and property ownership data, including specifications of the buildings on a property, its purchase date and price.
“Sometimes that ownership information needs to be deciphered,” Ruppel said. “But all of that is what my website is about: deciphering, aggregating and presenting it in a fun and entertaining way.”
Though this particular site was new to the LAPD, Cmdr. Pat Gannon said the use of the Internet to scope out potential burglary victims is a growing concern for the department. He said virtual tours on real estate sites and family photos on social networking sites like Facebook have been used by burglars to case homes.
“I don’t know if there’s a solution to it, because at what point can you put limits on it?” Gannon said. “But to have it available is really frightening for a lot of people.”
Celebrities have had little success in limiting the use of long-distance photos of their properties. In 2003, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge dismissed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by Barbra Streisand against an environmental activist who had posted an aerial photo of her bluff-top Malibu home on a website alongside 12,000 other pictures of the California coastline.
On celebrityaddressaerial.com, the creators state that the site gives people a way of contacting celebrities by mail without going through agents, managers or studio underlings.
Ruppel said people should not use the information to visit the homes themselves.
“If they really want to do something, then they need to go to the source, which goes right back to the government and is a 1st Amendment issue at the core,” he said.
“And really, what defines a VIP? That is totally subjective.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.