A study finds that trackers are being hacked and misused to hunt endangered animals.
Steven Cooke, a biology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, has made the disturbing claim that the tools used by scientists to study, track, and protect endangered and at-risk wildlife, is being hijacked and used for the opposite purpose. Cooke published a paper in the journal Conservation Biology where he details attempts by poachers in India to hack the GPS tacking collars on endangered bengal tigers, something Cooke calls “cyber poaching”. While this may be the most extreme case, there are also reports of anglers in the US trying to petition for access to northern pike movement data, citing that it should be part of the public record.
Cooke says that this “troubling and unanticipated” problem is new, and that so far, there isn’t enough data to tell exactly how extensive it is. He does however, provide a lot of anecdotal evidence. Scientists are scheduled to meet in Australia in June to discuss the issue and potential solutions. Cooke is calling for encryption and strict rules to secure the data, as well as limiting access to the data for anyone not conducting research.
Cooke noted in an interview with AFP that tracking technology has done a lot of good, helping ecologists, biologists, conservationists and more, but that leaving the tech unchecked could lead to disastrous consequences: “Just think about all the weird ways that people might try to exploit this technology,” Cooke said. The idea for his new research came after a family holiday to Banff National Park in Canada, where authorities had banned VHF radio receivers after photographers used tracking telemetry to find and photograph tagged animals.
The tags emit a ping that any regular radio tuned to the right frequency can pick up. It allows humans to “stalk these animals in their natural environment, instead of waiting for them to wander over to you,” said Cooke. There’s huge financial incentive to exploiting the tags; not simply for poachers and photographers, but even for wildlife tourist groups, who often discount their trips if no animals are spotted. It just goes to show, there are a lot of people who may be inclined to abuse the system; all the more reason to ensure it’s properly protected.