Animals, Surveillance, and Privacy: Navigating the Ethical Collection and Use of Animal Data

New ethical standards will help discern what is or is not morally (and legally) owed animals now that techno-science affects wildlife and ecosystems. The term privacy rights as it applies to animals highlights the risks of high-tech surveillance using drones, vehicles, and camera traps. Tagging and tracing devices aimed for conservation efforts and to protect and learn more about animals are accessible to the public: people can use telemetry equipment to find tagged animals. To me, privacy in the human sphere tends to imply the entity exercising the privacy does so knowingly, and is harmed by a privacy infringement. In the animal realm, the animal might not appreciate the gravity of a privacy infringement (does it care if its photo is shared on the internet?) but the animal could be directly harmed by the infringement, which can lead hunters, fishers, tourists, or law enforcement to its habitat.

The options of regulating the collection of data (the way it is collected and its purpose) or the use of data (how it is used, who can use it) are open ethics questions. Some purposes could justify more data collection as long as the means are not harmful. Yet an ethical collection for an ethical purpose does not imply that it would be ethical for everyone to access the data and use it for unauthorized purposes, which is how things are now. (There are some regulations like a law in NC prohibits drones for fishing and hunting. Overlapping consensus can be found among activists, conservationists, and some hunters who find drone images to provide an unfair advantage like some traps.)

Proper and improper purposes can help draw an ethical line. If an animal was tagged for purposes considered scientific research geared toward the good of that animal’s population, hunters and the government may find the animals to kill them. I learned recently that the government might use the tagging to kill an animal implicated in an accident like a shark attack. What about animals tagged for a safari–or commercial purposes? Hunters, poachers, fishers all can use telemetry and drones, and they can receive signals from tracing devices placed by scientists.

Technology made imaging as well as surveillance of larger areas common. Cameras designed to protect animals from poachers can be abused or, even without abuse, can lead to unexpected changes in the behavior of animals or humans. Will people enjoy a hike if they are being watched? More importantly, people whose subsistence depends on the outdoors may alter their behaviors.

Scraping data including not just animal photos but who posted, liked, or commented on them from the internet leads to a broad privacy overlap of people and animals. The big data issues have broad overlap and some aspects of the big data framework (Big Data: Privacy, Implications for Medical Care, Public Health, and Cybersecurity) that I provide might also apply to animals.

Many thanks to the Chris Wlach and the New York City Bar Association Animal Law Committee “Privacy in the Wild” webinar. Below are links to resources by Brett Mills, Steven J. Cooke, and Nathan Young.

Brett Mills (2010) Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy, Continuum, 24:2, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/10304310903362726

Steven J. Cooke

Nathan Young

Going huntin’ or fishin’ in North Carolina? Leave your drone at home
Barb Darrow GIGAOM Blog July 3, 2014.’s%20lower%20house%20recently,prey%20would%20also%20be%20restricted.

Photo 2266161 © Peter Zaharov |

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