Data Protection for Species at Risk

Is this animal privacy, or a new beast of information ethics?

For those interested in researching habits of aquatic life, following aviary migration or getting further insight into land animal movement patterns, now's an excellent time to be a part of the field. With current technology including geolocation trackers, drones and satellite surveillance, we can collect more information on the world around us than ever before. Sadly, just as a rotten apple spoils the barrel, the growing call for data protection measures in research comes due to very real consequences of data misuse. For a prime example, look no further than India, when in 2013 poachers hacked GPS data on a protected Bengalese tiger population, spawning a new term: cyber poaching. Thankfully for the big cats, this data was encrypted, but at least one subject, known as Panna-211, was believed to be compromised and as a result closely monitored. In Canada VHF receivers are now banned from parks, after potential use of unauthorized devices to track collared bears, wolves and elk from wildlife reserves. We've yet to see if wildlife preserves should be no-fly zones for droids, although some national parks are currently protected.

Slowly, as new technologies are developed, consequences are considered and questions are being raised: what is stopping humans from turning around, and using data collection and monitoring, originally developed in the name of science, for more nefarious purposes? Ramifications for some species have already been realized: in 2014, Australian great white sharks were culled with alarming accuracy, using tagging technology originally implemented for study. If your organization is analyzing, collecting or caring for information on species at risk, consider the following:


The Open Data Challenge

Open data gives us tremendous possibilities, but before data goes public, efforts should be in place to minimize subject risk. Just as health researchers are often required to de-identify and strip sources of personally identifiable information to meet value and ethic requirements, such as those under the National Research council of Canada's Code of Conduct, so too should it be mandatory to de-identify and tokenize certain aspects of animal data prior to the release of open data sets. This would provide some measure of protection to the studied wildlife, while still allowing information sharing. Already, we know that gaming groups have shown interest in this data before: in the United States anglers argued they should have access to data on migration habits of Northern Pikes, as the research was publicly funded, and when the request was denied went on to tag their own samples. By making data protection and de-identification measures a requirement before data is published and available, governments and grant-giving organizations can ensure that not only is research being shared, but in ways that maximize potential for future studies or wildlife protection, without fear of unknowingly causing harm or disturbance.


Metadata and Cyber Poaching: the New World

Scientists and researchers are not the only malicious players when it comes to leaking data on species at risk. A glance through the tag 'Safari' on Instagram will reveal a bears, elephants, rhinos... oh my.. and dozens more wildlife beautiful against their native homes. However, while a photo of giant tusks, owner still attached, might appear innocent, the metadata trail left behind isn't: without awareness, geolocation data of herds get leaked to human predators who simply need to follow the trail, and tags, to know where the hunting is good. Hunting by using the data collected by tourists is particularly easy to access: there’s already an app just for alerting to spectacular sightings. Not to raise a cry against wildlife photography (far from it!), however, education to tourists and professionals would be wise, with 'think before you post', and check settings to cut the metadata before a photographic 'shot' becomes the much more dangerous kind thanks to leaked information.


Is ‘Privacy’ the Right Word Where Non-Humans Are Involved?

One quick check-in when it comes to animal data protection: researchers would be wise to avoid using the term ‘animal privacy’ when raising the alarm. For starters, privacy itself, while important to human freedom, is a slippery slop: privacy itself is felt through relationships, cultural values and personal beliefs, i.e. what is ‘private’ to one person isn’t as ‘private’ to another. Most organizations and institutions, in order to deal with privacy from cyber law perspective, use the concept personally identifiable information to distinguish information that is or could be considered private and requires more protection. Second, using the term animal privacy falls apart against existing privacy laws, because common fair information practices used to safeguard privacy can’t apply. Tenants of openness, consent and communication in the event of a compliant don’t work with non-human species: a marine biologist can’t ask for consent from sharks before tracking, let alone make certain the subject could understand the use of the data collected. One could probably find a good lawyer to sue the biologist if things went wrong, but beyond that the case gets too fishy to imagine.

While some fair information practices are a good idea for researchers to follow and promote, calling concerns an issue of animal privacy simply adds more complications, more loopholes that are unneeded, and loose sight of the original objective to collect information while minimizing subject risk. Instead of animal privacy, better to use a term like ‘wildlife data shielding', or 'data protection for species at risk': these terms highlight the need for responsible measures and control, without adding unnecessary confusion.


Communicate, Controls and Calls for Action

So what do we do? How do we balance interest in documenting and learning about the natural world, without subjecting it to more risk from dangerous players who undermine any good attempted in the process? Legally, there's quite a ways to go, but communicating the risks of unprotected research data on living organisms and taking actions to control our own efforts is a wise way to start. Inform others, lead by example to become champions, and raise the call to actions. For researchers uncertain where to start or how to minimize the risks data collection is having on their study subjects, bringing on information, data and security expertise makes an excellent first step. Grant-providing institutions are already insisting on data management plans before awarding funding; calling on privacy professionals to perform impact assessments and audits shows thinking ahead. Ultimately, this is a topic that needs to be communicated more frequently, and consider calls to action for new regulations, an act best served by both respected authority in zoological fields, environmental officers and not-for-profit conservation organizations.

A lack of law however, is never a barrier from performing ethical best practices. If you’re gearing up to make a name in the field, or part of a hardworking wildlife study team, now is the time to ask: what harm could your data do if it fell into the wrong hands? Who is accountable for the information you gather, and what measures of protection could be in place to develop a more secure research environment, for both you and the ones you want to understand? By calling for safeguards now, we hold ourselves to higher data standards that can make us more confident and bring better value, to beast and biologist alike.

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