A researcher uses a radio telemetry device for locating and tracking animal movements in the wild. Methods such as these collect data about human activities as well, often indirectly and in trace form.
Photo credit: Steven J. Cooke

By Nathan Young, Dominique Roche, Robert Lennox, Joseph Bennett, and Steve Cooke.

Read the full article here.

Environmental surveillance technologies are advancing rapidly. Thousands of camera traps, continuous video streams, audio recorders, remote sensors, apps, drones, satellites, and telemetry devices have been deployed around the world to monitor territories and track the behaviours of animals. Researchers, NGOs, and government agencies are using Internet and social media surveillance tools to identify species distributions and behaviour, document pro- and anti-environmental human activities, and identify trends in how people experience and talk about nature. These innovations have tremendous upside for environmental protection and conservation, but they also pose risks for people who end up being watched, recorded, and monitored by these technologies as well. For example, citizen science and hobbyist apps collect a great of information on users who contribute content. Another example is that substantial information is collected on people who use or occupy sensitive environments, including farmers, subsistence hunters, recreational users, and members of Indigenous communities.

Our article uses the concept of “surveillance power” from the social science field of surveillance studies to help researchers and policymakers anticipate and mitigate the potential downside of environmental surveillance, particularly for marginalized people and communities who already suffer from imbalances of social power. We believe that strong privacy protections, informed consent, and restrictions on secondary use of data are important principles for environmental surveillance (surveillance for law enforcement purposes is different but should be subject to judicial oversight). We also argue that researchers and policymakers should be aware that surveillance can be unintentionally discriminatory, for instance capturing disproportionately large amounts of data on Indigenous and subsistence users of particular territories and species, and that this tendency must be mitigated.

To help, we use insights from surveillance studies, and from some early key articles on environmental surveillance, to propose two tools – a “red flag checklist” to anticipate potential problems, and a “considerations guide” to inform design decisions across a wide range of environmental surveillance systems. These tools will help to maximize the benefits of innovative environmental surveillance technologies while mitigating potentially negative impacts on people.