A grizzly bear in Alaska. Image: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Flickr

Scientists Are Debating Whether Animals Have a Right to Privacy

A growing number of scientists are deliberately concealing tracking data to protect their location.

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Jun 5 2017, 1:00pm

A grizzly bear in Alaska. Image: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith/Flickr

The psychedelic rock gecko lives among the rocks on a tiny island in the South China Sea. Scientists first described this small, colourful creature in 2010 in the journal Zootaxa—where to find it, what it looks like, and how it behaves. Three years later, you could buy one in Europe through the international pet trade. Same story for the Bornean earless monitor lizard, Campbell's alligator lizard, and countless other species.

Scientific data used to be accessible only through university subscriptions to specialized journals. But these days, there's a push to remove those limitations and make it available to anyone who wants it. It's a Catch-22—scientists now find themselves inadvertently putting animals at risk of exploitation by publishing and sharing their location and tracking information. And they're grappling with what to do about it.

"My personal health information should be protected," said Steven Cooke, a conservation biologist and fish ecologist at Carleton University in Ottawa. "But where a bear hangs out over winter—is that information that should be splashed around and available to all? Do animals have a right to privacy, and who decides that?"

"There is increasing demand by the public that data across many fields be accessible," said Ben Scheele, an ecologist from the Australian National University, in an interview over email. For scientists, open-access data enhances collaboration and study repeatability. It also leads to better public awareness and participation in citizen science. "But for some species, this benefit needs to be weighted against the risk of increased poaching, habitat damage, and behaviour disturbance," Scheele told me.

He and colleague David Lindenmayer addressed this problem recently in the journal Science, urging scientists to take up the discussion.

"I just knock off some of the longitude and latitude degrees at the end of the co-ordinates"

"Before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts?" said Sheele. "Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?"

Paleontologists don't release the whereabouts of a new dinosaur fossil, to restrict their collection and trade. Archeologists do the same. But biologists have traditionally published these data, using tracking technologies to learn about all sorts of species, from fish, to bears, elephants, tigers, cougars.

Cooke has been tagging animals for two decades, and as a conservationist, he always assumed he was doing some good in the world. "But I can't say I'd ever sat back and thought whether my data could be misused or abused," he admitted. Until recently.

Peyto Lake at Banff National Park. Image: By Tobias Alt, Tobi 87 via Wikimedia Commons

After learning that people were using cheap radio telemetry receivers to track animals that were tagged by researchers in Banff National Park in Alberta, he wondered how this data was being used. Charismatic or valuable animals are especially targeted.

"You don't need a gun, a hook, or a net to harm wildlife," said Cooke. When humans get too close, animals can become habituated and may end up getting euthanized. Or they become stressed or sick, or they might just move altogether. "If I give you the latitude and longitude to where a bear hibernates, then that's where that bear is," Cooke said. These days, anyone with a smartphone can find their way to that site.

Some publications and official government reports require that scientists include the exact coordinates of the species they're studying, but a growing number are allowing researchers to mask the spatial and temporal aspects of the data—giving a range of instead of exact coordinates, omitting geographic landmarks, and not publishing real-time updates on-line.

"I just knock off some of the longitude and latitude degrees at the end of the co-ordinates," Cooke said, "so now you're within 10km of where we caught the fish instead of knowing what log they were under."

In India, poachers tried to hack into the GPS data that researchers were using to track tigers. In other cases, Cooke said, ecotourism operators tag wildlife themselves so that their customers can be guaranteed to find whatever animal they've come to see.

Read More: Tracking Grizzly Bears With a Smartphone App in Northern Alberta

Lydia, a great white shark, has worn a satellite tracker on her dorsal fin since 2013. She and other sharks attract thousands of Twitter followers when they surface, 'ping' a satellite, and tweet their location.

Smartphone apps and websites like iNaturalist make it easy to contribute to science. Citizen scientists record thousands of wildlife sightings a year. And the app allows some flexibility as far as co-ordinates go. The user chooses the 'Geoprivacy' settings with each observation—available, obscured, or hidden. Any taxa listed as "Near Threatened" or more, based on the IUCN Red List, is automatically obscured.

Going forward, the challenge is to organize a global database of information on rare and endangered species that's secure. The reality is that humans don't give animals a lot of space to exist.

"Animals have to work pretty bloody hard to stay hidden and find the space to go about their business," Cooke said. "And if we are using technology to take that away from them, then we need to be prepared to have a future without the wildlife we have today."

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