Friday February 10, 2017

Scientific data used to track and protect animals is vulnerable to hacking

A herd of 16 bison was relocated into Banff National Park on Monday. Five of the animals have tracking collars which transmit data back to the Environment Canada team.

A herd of 16 bison was relocated into Banff National Park on Monday. Five of the animals have tracking collars which transmit data back to the Environment Canada team. (Johane Janelle/Parks Canada)

Listen 7:22

This week, the first wild bison to roam Banff National Park in more than a century were shipped to a remote valley in within the park, with the goal of re-establishing a thriving herd in the area.

Sixteen bison, including two that are pregnant, will spend the next 16 months in an eastern section of the park and will be closely monitored by Parks Canada using radio collars

"Part of any reintroduction these days involves radio collars," says Karsten Heuer, project manager for the bison reintroduction project in Banff.

"Perhaps need to think more carefully about how these data can be used for more nefarious purposes." - Steven Cooke, Canada Research Chair of Environmental Science and Biology

Three of the animals in this project have Global Positioning System (GPS) collars, and two sport Very High Frequency (VHF) radio collars. The data that these collars transmit will be picked up by Heuer and his team and used to determine how well the animals integrate into their new environment and how they behave in this ecosystem.

"We will be monitoring them at a very fine scale to see what kind of vegetation they prefer in that area," Heuer says. "It will help us track their movements ... and also help us know if an animal becomes stagnant and more often that leads us to investigate why an animal died."

Animal tracking data is a useful tool for understand how animals behave, and in the case of this bison project, how well they're adapting to their new environment.

However, as useful as it is, a recent report in the journal Conservation Biology has found that this data is vulnerable to hackers, poachers, and members of the public looking to interfere with the animals. As the lead author of that report, Steven Cooke puts it, "There're always going to be people with nefarious purposes."

Cooke is the Canada Research Chair of Environmental Science and Biology, he's also a fish biologist. Much like Heuer's team, Cooke's lab uses fish tracking data to understand how aquatic wildlife use their environment.

Steven Cooke

Steven Cooke is the Canada Research Chair of Environmental Science and Biology at Carleton University. (Steven Cooke/Cooke Labs)

"We're very proud of ourselves as a research community and just now we're realizing that we perhaps need to think more carefully about how these data can be used for more nefarious purposes," he says.

The research article, entitled "Troubling issues at the frontier of animal tracking for conservation and management," reviews several cases of scientific tracking data going astray. In Canada, this happens most frequently with VHF radio receivers.

"I don't think anybody that started down the road of doing telemetry for science or for conservation had thought about when this technology was first developed." - Steven Cooke

Cooke says there have been cases of wildlife photographers in Banff National Park intercepting the signal for the tracking collars.

"They're able to essentially tune in on the animal that they're after," he says. "If you see a grizzly bear at the side of the road you just stand there long enough, and keep turning the dial until you hear, 'beep, beep, beep.' And then forever more you're able to find that animal when it's away from the town site in more natural environments."

That phenomenon led Banff to ban radio receivers for members of the public entering the park grounds.

In Canada, there isn't a big problem with these animals being poached, it's more an issue of the animals being disturbed. But in cases like Yellowstone National Park in the U.S., a wolf reintroduction program has struggled as a result of locals hunting the animals.

"There have been great efforts to reintroduce, and as these wolves wander off into adjacent lands there's interactions with farmers, ranchers," says Cooke. "There's evidence from the internet — websites encouraging and telling land owners how to figure out what are the coordinates of the individual animal."

Cooke says those ranchers and farmers will often hunt and kill these wolves, "not because they necessarily want a trophy, but it's partly a disdain for the science and the reintroduction project, and for the government."

Even when the government is involved things can happen to work against scientists' goals. In his article, Cooke writes about an Australian team of scientists who collected data about sharks towards the goal of conservation, but later on, after that project was completed, the government gave that tracking data to a team who had the mission of culling the shark population. Cooke says that was certainly something the scientists did not expect.

"I don't think anybody that started down the road of doing telemetry for science or for conservation had thought about when this technology was first developed," Cooke says.

Beyond radio receivers, Cooke brings up an example from a reintroduction project in India with Bengal tigers. Hackers attempted to penetrate scientists' labs and get access to that work. "There were attempts to get access to that data, and they were able to thwart them," he says. "They came up with the term 'cyber-poaching'."

Cooke says this puts him and other scientists in a bit of a pickle. They want to engage the public and generate interest for their projects, but they also have an obligation to their goals and to the animals.

"We generate this information that we want to end up in the hands of resource managers and we just need to make sure that we're careful. At the same time, we're trying to engage the public."  — Steven Cooke

"We want to have members of fish and wildlife clubs coming with us when we're doing our work — citizen science. But at the same time if we're doing things that, imagine working on an endangered species, there's only a handful of these animals are left, and if we can literally identify the GPS coordinates of those animals in real time ... there's always somebody out there that has a nefarious purposes in mind."

For that reason, he's hoping that members of the scientific community can come together to discuss strategies and ways of working with animal tracking data, working with the public, and protecting the animals.

"As soon as this paper came out I was getting emails from other folks in the community telling stories about what they've encountered, and also how they were able to come to appropriate resolutions so that they could continue to use this as the valuable tool that it was designed to be in the first instance."