The privacy problem with camera traps: you don’t know who else could be watching

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A spotted-tailed Quoll detected during a small mammal survey at Carrai Plateau, New South Wales.
Paul Meek, Author provided

Paul D Meek, University of New England; Greg Falzon, University of New England, and James Bishop, University of New England

We use remotely activated cameras – known as camera traps – to study the ecology and population responses of wildlife and pest species in management programs across Australia.

These devices are used widely by scientists, researchers and managers to detect rare wildlife, monitor populations, study behaviour and measure long term wildlife population health.

But the lack of transparency surrounding how these images are transmitted, where they are stored, and who has access to them in transit, has scientists worried.

We’ve discovered that images captured by these devices may potentially be accessed by more than those intended, and that this could pose potential privacy breaches, and even poaching risks.

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A chance discovery

It was an accidental discovery that our images can travel from the field to big overseas internet servers. We had not considered the transmission path of our images, and who may have access to them along the way.

Manufacturers have developed camera traps that are capable of transmitting image data using the telecommunications network (in Australia this is 3G and soon to move to 4G).

Most of these camera trap models can transmit images using both MMS (Multi Media Message Service), where the image is sent in an SMS (Short Message Service) to a smart phone, and via SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), where the image is transmitted to an email address.

A 3G camera trap set in the Strzelecki Desert and sending images to the authors email and phone.
PM, Author provided

In Australia, when you buy a 3G compatible camera trap you just need to add a SIM card from a service provider. The images will then be sent from the camera trap at a field site to your work or home in seconds. This process is made simple for users by manufacturers who set up default settings to assist you in programming the camera trap.

If, like most people, you don’t over-ride the default settings, then your data will be managed for you. An attractive offer, especially for those people who are not tech-savvy or who don’t have time to fiddle around with programming equipment.

But where are your images going? Who has the legal right to access and store them? How secure is each stage of the transmission path, and are your images being used without your knowledge?

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An evaluation process

Our research team has been evaluating the transmission of images via SMTP for a larger research project, aimed at developing camera trap transmission via satellite.

We have been testing and comparing several models of 3G camera trap, which includes evaluating the message structure and headers.

It was these investigations that revealed some alarming information that pose several potential risks to camera trap users when a camera trap is set up using the default settings for SMTP transmission.

Each manufacturer will use different methods, but in essence when an image is transferred through some 3G telecommunication service, the image is sent to one or more web-servers, where the image may be stored, then sent to the recipient email address or phone.

These servers can be in any country. Our investigations of the five models we tested identified that images are being sent via some large, well-known Asian and North American companies. The exact location of each server, and the full transmission pathway cannot be fully known.

Exactly what happens to these images during transmission also remains unknown. But most practitioners we have spoken to have no idea their images could potentially be going to servers overseas, so it raises several concerns for users.

A privacy concern

One of our foremost concerns is how legal professionals would interpret ownership and distribution of images of people under privacy legislation. Camera traps deployed to detect wildlife often detect unsuspecting people walking past.

A harmless image of an un-suspecting person walking past a camera trap could end up in a court of law if the image is used without their permission.
Paul Meek, Author provided

It’s a legal mine field when a camera trap user potentially distributes an image of a person without their permission.

It was an issue raised back in 2012 when an unnamed Austrian politician was caught in a sexual encounter by a camera trap. In that case the image wasn’t released publicly but it raised concerns over a potential breach of privacy.

In Australia, such an image belongs to the person who is photographed irrespective of where the images were taken, so strictly speaking they could pursue legal action against anyone distributing it.

Clearly there would be extenuating circumstances, but whether or not there is a case to be answered is yet to be tested and would depend on the country and legislation involved.

Camera traps are also used for security purposes by authorities, farmers and members of the public, so potential legal and sensitive data could be distributed over the internet. As there is a lack of transparency surrounding the transmission pathway, storage, and usage of the data, this could be a huge concern.

In Australia, this might constitute a breach under the Privacy Act 1988 dependent on the whether any personal data is disclosed and the potential for serious harm which might result.

All in the cloud

The Australian government has released policy and guidelines concerning the protection of data privacy when using cloud services.

But these requirements might not extend, or have not been adopted, in the context of technological based ecology monitoring and so valuable data could currently be leaving Australian shores.

How this data is used is also largely unknown. It may serve many commercial purposes for companies, such as data mining, advertising, and machine learning and artificial intelligence development, to name but a few. Exactly what country, where and how securely the data is stored remains a mystery.

Of real concern for many international wildlife conservation groups is the potential misuse of wildlife images that could identify threatened species and locations. This information could be illegally accessed by poachers, or those looking to sell the data for profit.

Our disclaimer here is that we have no evidence to prove or deny that such practices are occurring, but the potential exists and the lack of transparency is alarming.

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Reducing the risk

Until recently we did not fully comprehend the risks we were taking by using 3G camera traps without taking some precautions. Like most, we accepted that our data was safe and controlled by Australian telecommunications systems, and had no concept that the images may be transmitted or stored by servers overseas.

We now know the risks and that in many cases this image management protocol can be circumvented by over-riding the camera’s default settings. In the ideal world every user would know the full transmission pathway of the image and could take steps to make sure it is as secure as practically possible. Given this is not possible, we recommend that where possible, users program camera traps to send SMTP images direct to an email address that they have more control over.

The ConversationIt will take a little extra time to program the camera traps, but at least users will have more control over the path of their image from the field to any receiving device.

The right thing captured in the camera trap: a spotted-tailed Quoll.
Paul Meek, Author provided

Paul D Meek, Adjunct Lecturer in School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England; Greg Falzon, Lecturer in Computational Science, University of New England, and James Bishop, PhD candidate, software engineer, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Proposed NSW logging laws value timber over environmental protection

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Increased logging in NSW could affect threatened species.
Nativesrule, Author provided

Oisín Sweeney, University of Sydney

New South Wales is revamping its logging laws for the first time in two decades, drafting regulations that will govern more than two million hectares of public native forest.

Among the changes are proposals to permit logging in exclusion zones – part of the reserve system – and dramatic increases to the scale and intensity of logging, putting several threatened species at direct risk.

NSW can implement these changes unilaterally. But if it does, NSW will effectively be asking the federal government to agree to changes that directly contradict the federal Threatened Species Strategy and several species recovery plans, and reduce the extent of the reserve system.

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Regional Forest Agreements

The federal government has arrangements with the states called Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs). They provide certainty to logging operations by accrediting state logging rules under federal environment law. No other industry gets this treatment – but RFAs are now expiring after having been in place for 20 years.

But the proposed changes to NSW logging laws clearly prioritise timber extraction over environmental protection. In 2014 the NSW government extended wood supply agreements with timber companies, locking in a commitment to logging at a certain level. The changes are cited as necessary to meet these wood supply agreements.

This means abandoning commitments made under the National Forest Policy Statement in 1992, including the concept of ecologically sustainable forest management. This is a fundamental shift and, because of the impacts on the reserve system and threatened species, against the national interest.

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Overlogging is behind the changes

In its 2016 Forestry Industry Roadmap the NSW government made a dual commitment to maintain logging levels without eroding environmental protection. However, the NSW Natural Resources Commission tasked with finding a way to do this reported “it is not possible to meet the government’s commitments around both environmental values and wood supply”.

The commission therefore recommended the NSW government “remap and rezone” old-growth forest and rainforest to increase the area that can be logged and make up timber shortfalls.

There are three kinds of zones that make up protected forest reserves. The first zone requires an act of state parliament to revoke, but the second and third can be revoked by the state forestry minister.

To further increase timber supply, headwater stream buffers – areas around waterways that cannot be logged – will be reduced from 10 metres to five.

The new laws also permit the logging of giant trees up to 140cm in diameter, or 160cm in the case of blackbutt and alpine ash (preferred timber species).

Northeast NSW to see the biggest changes

In northeast NSW, a new “intensive harvesting zone” will cover 140,000 hectares of coastal forests between Taree and Grafton. These forests are in the Forests of East Australia global biodiversity hotspot and many are included in a proposed Great Koala National Park.

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This will see 45-hectare patches of forest cleared of all but a smattering of small trees. The intensity of logging everywhere else in the “selective” harvesting zone will, on average, double.

Implications for wildlife and forest ecosystems

The new proposals move towards a retention model where habitat features are to be retained in clumps over several logging cycles. This “retention approach” is good in theory, but is undermined by the landscape-wide intensification of logging – particularly in the intensive zone – and the need to maximise timber production, not the conservation of forest species.

Although hollow-bearing trees are to be retained, no younger trees – which will eventually replace their elders – are required to be protected. This means the inevitable loss of hollow-bearing trees, exacerbated by logging rezoned old-growth. There is no longer any requirement to protect eucalypt nectar trees, vital resources for the critically endangered regent honeyeater and swift parrot.

A report on the proposals from the Threatened Species Expert Panel reveals that almost no data was available to design the new environmental protections, and there was great uncertainty as to whether they will work. One panel member commented:

The intensive harvesting zones are being formally introduced to prop up an unsustainable wood supply arrangement at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating trying to be part of the solution when the underlying driver of the wood supply agreements fundamentally restricts any chance of a balanced approach.

The federal government has a problem

The federal government has already committed to extending Regional Forest Agreements with the states. Yet besides potentially reducing the size of the reserve network, NSW’s proposals directly threaten federally-listed species.

Conservation advice for the marsupial greater glider clearly states the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation through intensive logging.

Greater gliders (Petauroides volans) are vulnerable to loss of tree hollows and habitat fragmentation, which will both be exacerbated under NSW’s proposals.
Dave Gallan

Koalas prefer large trees and mature forests, yet the intensive logging zone will cover almost half of identified high quality koala habitat. Legally, loggers will only have to keep 10 trees of 20cm diameter per hectare – far too few and too small for koalas.

The national recovery plan for the swift parrot proposes the retention of all trees over 60cm diameter – clearly incompatible with the proposed intensive harvesting zone – while the recovery plan for the regent honeyeater identifies all breeding and foraging habitat as critical to survival.

Recent research has predicted a 31% probability of swift parrot extinction in the next 20 years, and a 57% probability for the regent honeyeater. Both birds are priority species under the Australian government’s Threatened Species Strategy.

Public feedback on the proposed changes is invited until June 29. After that, the federal government must decide whether it deems the proposals to be consistent with national environment law in a new Regional Forest Agreement. Signing off on these changes will cast serious doubt on the federal government’s commitment to the national environmental interest.

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The ConversationThe author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Dailan Pugh, OAM and co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance, to this article.

Oisín Sweeney, Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.