HeatStreet – by Lukas Mikelionis
Poachers and hunters are hacking signals from conservationists’ tags to locate and hunt down endangered animals.
Poachers are set to make an enormous amount of money from hunting the animals, some indicating that the illicit wildlife trade is worth around £15 billion ($18.4 billion) a year and rhinoceros horn is being sold for over £50,000 ($61,000) a kilo.
Conservationists are tagging animals with GPS or radio transmitters to help research animal behavior and migration patterns. Transmitters cost between £150 and £4,000, but experts warned that the security standards aren’t always adequate.
According to Steven Cooke, of Carleton University in Canada, abuses of GPS tagging often appear in local media, blogs, and websites—but rarely recorded in the scientific literature.
“This technology is supposed to help us protect animals, but is increasingly being turned against them too,” he told the paper. “It is urgent that researchers and manufacturers come together to make their systems more secure.”
Cooke said the worst known case of GPS interception by poachers was when eight grey wolves in Yellowstone national park were hunted down.
Animals wearing radio collars have the frequencies classified, however, they can easily be found by hunters within range of the transmitter using cheap receivers. Once someone has found a tag’s signal, they can track down the animal.
Satellite-based tagging systems, meanwhile, cannot be intercepted by poachers within the range because the location data is being sent directly to servers and researchers’ email accounts. However, Cooke noted that the data could be hacked.
Poachers have tried to hack an email account in India, associated with Satpura tiger reserve, which tracks down a tagged Bengal tiger. Though the hack failed, the professor claims it’s a mater of time before a successful hack happens.
“Hackers have already stolen data from big banks and hospitals multiple times,” he said. “Conservationists’ systems are much less secure.”
Hunters of illicit wildlife are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. In the past these folks have used geo-tagged pictures posted on social media by tourists on safari to find rare animals such as rhinos. Conservationists stopped publishing details of endangered species’ locations to stop attracting poachers.
The practice of tagging anmials, however, isn’t only being used by criminals. Australian officials have used tracking data from researchers to track down a shark they deemed a threat to humans.
Parks Canada issued a public ban on VHF radio received in three parks after pictures were used to locate tagged bears.
Professor Cooke also said there are concerns that poachers could weaponize freedom of information requests to find out where are the animals. In Minnesota, anglers unsuccessfully petitioned to access data from tags on northern pike.
WWF conservation technology adviser Paul Glover-Kapfer said such concerns are important and should be addressed. “We are already working with conservationists to ensure these devices and data are not used for illegal purposes by protecting tag IDs and encrypting data,” he said.