Unnatural Surveillance: How Online Data Is Putting Species at Risk

Adam Welz at YaleEnvironment360: “…The burgeoning pools of digital data from electronic tags, online scientific publications, “citizen science” databases and the like – which have been an extraordinary boon to researchers and conservationists – can easily be misused by poachers and illegal collectors. Although a handful of scientists have recently raised concerns about it, the problem is so far poorly understood.

Today, researchers are surveilling everything from blue whales to honeybees with remote cameras and electronic tags. While this has had real benefits for conservation, some attempts to use real-time location data in order to harm animals have become known: Hunters have shared tips on how to use VHF radio signals from Yellowstone National Park wolves’ research collars to locate the animals. (Although many collared wolves that roamed outside the park have been killed, no hunter has actually been caught tracking tag signals.) In 2013, hackers in India apparently successfully accessed tiger satellite-tag data, but wildlife authorities quickly increased security and no tigers seem to have been harmed as a result. Western Australian government agents used a boat-mounted acoustic tag detector to hunt tagged white sharks in 2015. (At least one shark was killed, but it was not confirmed whether it was tagged). Canada’s Banff National Park last year banned VHF radio receivers after photographers were suspected of harassing tagged animals.

While there is no proof yet of a widespread problem, experts say it is often in researchers’ and equipment manufacturers’ interests to underreport abuse. Biologist Steven Cooke of Carleton University in Canada lead-authored a paper this year cautioning that the “failure to adopt more proactive thinking about the unintended consequences of electronic tagging could lead to malicious exploitation and disturbance of the very organisms researchers hope to understand and conserve.” The paper warned that non-scientists could easily buy tags and receivers to poach animals and disrupt scientific studies, noting that “although telemetry terrorism may seem far-fetched, some fringe groups and industry players may have incentives for doing so.”…(More)”.