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The 21st Century Threat to Wildlife is "Cyberpoaching"

The growth and accessibility of the internet has transformed the illegal wildlife trade.

ByKara NortonNOVA EducationNOVA Education
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Confiscated wildlife ends up in the National Wildlife Property Repository, a 22,000 square foot warehouse near Denver, Colorado that houses wildlife items that have been forfeited or abandoned to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Image Credit: Ryan Moehring / USFWS National Digital Library

In July 2013, Krishnamurthy Ramesh, head of the monitoring program at Panna Tiger Reserve in central India, received a security alert. Someone was attempting to access his email account from a location more than 600 miles away from his office. Sitting in Ramesh’s inbox was an email reporting the encrypted coordinates of an endangered Bengal tiger.

Tigers are considered “walking gold” on the black market. Although leading Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) organizations have banned the use of tiger parts, a robust illegal market that values tigers as luxury items—particularly their bones and pelts—still exists.

However, the demand for wildlife products is not limited to tigers. Elephants, rhinos, pangolins, sharks, and many other species are part of this massive illicit trade. The world of wildlife trafficking and poaching is orchestrated by highly organized crime syndicates which rake in profits exceeding $20 billion per year. It is the fourth most profitable illegal enterprise behind narcotics, weapons, and human trafficking, and is considered a significant contributor to the sixth mass extinction.

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Less than 4,000 tigers remain in the wild. Image courtesy of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)

Although the suspicious log-in attempt was thwarted by Ramesh’s server, and the tiger’s exact location was encrypted, the cybersecurity breach exposed the threat of an endangered animal’s GPS coordinates falling into the wrong hands.

Today, emails are encrypted by coded email programs to prevent others from reading them. However, not all online activity is encrypted and in some cases browsing history, text messages, and data from apps can be intercepted. Emails are normally encrypted when they are sent, but can sometimes be decrypted before they reach their recipient. Cybersecurity news often focuses on how hackers access personal information, bank accounts, social media, and government data. But what if “cyberpoachers” started targeting information on the locations of endangered species through their animal tracking data?

The Rise of Wildlife Cybercrime

The illegal wildlife trade has transformed with the growth and accessibility of the internet. Animals that used to be sold in physical markets are now sold by anonymous online vendors. As a result, a largely unregulated online market allows criminal enterprises to sell illegally acquired wildlife products, and transport them around the world. The consumer-to-consumer marketplace has made buying shark fins, pangolin scales, and rhino horns as easy as click, pay, ship.

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Infographic courtesy of IFAW

The 2018 International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) report Disrupt: Wildlife Cybercrime identified more than 5,000 advertisements spread across more than 100 online marketplaces and social media platforms, cataloguing close to 12,000 endangered and threatened specimens worth almost $4 million. These items were completely accessible to the public; the report did not include items advertised in closed or private Facebook groups, password-protected websites, or the hidden part of the internet—the dark web.

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“Many of the species preyed upon by wildlife criminals are in danger of approaching a tipping point where their diminishing numbers can no longer sustain their populations,” described Rikkert Reijnen, program director of wildlife crime at IFAW, in the Disrupt report. “Some, such as rhinos, may have already reached that point. Disrupting wildlife cybercrime is a critical component of ensuring the welfare, safety and survival of endangered and threatened animals.”

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A wildlife ranger stands guard as towers of confiscated ivory go up in smoke in Kenya's Nairobi National Park. The country burned 105 tons of ivory in 2016 to send a stern message: Ivory is worthless unless it is on elephants. Image courtesy of IFAW

Unfortunately, illegal online markets aren’t the only “digital threat” to endangered wildlife. In recent years, hackers have exploited the very systems designed to monitor and protect these animals. By decrypting location data from radio tags and GPS collars, hackers can track down animals or reveal their whereabouts to those who would harm them. (Hacking by nature is not good or bad—it is essentially solving problems in creative and innovative ways. Some hackers use questionable methods of acquiring information, whether with intent to help or harm, while others use hackathons to improve existing security protocols by collaborating as a community to solve complex problems.)

“Being able to put on a map exactly where animals are in space in time, that’s what one needs to exploit them,” wrote Steven J. Cooke, a biology professor at Carleton University in Canada, in an article in the journal Conservation Biology.

Cooke pointed out that the animal-tracking data scientists use to safeguard animals could potentially be used to harm them by poachers, commercial fishermen, and even nature lovers looking to photograph them.

Some of the troubling ways radio tags and collars have been used to “locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,” Cooke pointed out, include great white sharks that were killed in Western Australia by individuals who had tracked their radio signals to “reduce human-wildlife conflict,” as well as efforts by “wolf persecution” groups to decrypt data on radio collars to allow them to hunt down and kill wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

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A wolf watches biologists in Yellowstone National Park after being captured and fitted with a radio collar. Image Credit: William Campbell / USFWS National Digital Library

According to wildlife criminologist Monique Sosnowski, there are two primary ways poachers can attempt to access animal tracking data.

“First, they can attempt to bribe corrupt individuals such as anti-poaching entities or game guides charged with locating and protecting these species,” Sosnowski says.

When it comes to infiltrating the tracking systems themselves, Sosnowski notes that this requires more technical skill and is thus more likely attempted by organized criminal networks.

“Cases of this have been reported around the world as poachers have attempted to gain access to GPS data, or capitalize on VHF radio signals,” she says.

Tarah Wheeler, an international security fellow at New America, highlighted a third way “cyberpoachers” can track wild animals. If the location setting on your cell phone is switched on when snapping a photo of an animal, that data is embedded in the photo you post on social media, creating a digital roadmap for poachers to track wildlife.

“Because of the way cell phones track your location now, you don’t need to critique someone’s photograph to find out where they were at a given time,” Wheeler told NBC News. “Metadata, including exact longitude and latitude, is stuck to the background of the photo.”

Hack the Poacher

Just as poachers might access animal tracking data through vacation selfies posted from a smartphone, Hack the Planet software engineers Tim van Deursen and Thijs Suijten have leveraged mobile phones to create a detection system to turn the tables on poachers.

Van Deursen and Suijten designed the Hack the Poacher system with the intent to deter poachers from protected areas and aid rangers in their ongoing fight against wildlife crime. The system uses sensors placed throughout the target area to detect poacher’s GSM cell phone signals as well as radio frequencies so rangers that patrol poaching hotspots can be alerted to their presence. Hack the Poacher works with individual parks to tailor their technology to the issues that rangers are seeing on the ground in specific poaching hotspots.

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In Zambia, where the Hack the Poacher system has been tested, poachers rely heavily on their mobile phones and radios for navigation and communication with each other to coordinate and organize extraction of ivory. Illustration courtesy of Hack the Poacher.

“When your cell phone is on, it's always searching for GSM towers,” Suijten says. “The rangers at the park we are working with in Zambia told us that poachers always have a phone on them. Even if there is no GSM coverage, if their cell phone is on, it will always be searching for a cell phone tower and transmitting a strong signal to connect to service.”

The Hack the Poacher system can monitor up to 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) with just 30-40 sensors. The founders believe this system could eventually work in tandem with other tech tools like automated camera traps, machine learning, and satellite imagery, sending rangers alerts in real time and keeping them steps ahead of poachers.

“Many initiatives in the past focused on optimizing detection of poachers by trying to get eyes on the poacher with, for example, the use of drones, night vision cameras, radar, and satellites,” van Deursen says. “While these techniques can be effective, the costs are often too high to implement on a large scale, or too technologically advanced to be operated by people other than the tech team behind the product.”

Hack the Poacher is powered by three agencies: Hack the Planet, Q42, and Irnas. These strategic technology companies work on creating and implementing pragmatic technologies to tackle humanitarian and sustainability challenges. The Hack the Poacher project has also received support from World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Google, Green Safaris, No Wildlife Crime (NWC), and Smart Parks.

Using Radical Collaboration to Save Wildlife

Just as Hack the Poacher is working to stop poaching at its source, IFAW is working alongside the world’s largest e-commerce, technology, and social media companies to shut down online marketplaces that deal in the trade of illegal wildlife.

“Within IFAW, we have a lot of innovative and unique partnerships that we leverage to address cybercrime and analyze data related to wildlife trafficking,” says Danielle Kessler, acting US director of IFAW. “We are working through the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online to collaborate with 36 tech companies across continents, such as eBay, Google, Microsoft and Tencent, to unite the industry and maximize impact for reducing wildlife trafficking online.”

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African elephants are the largest land animals on Earth and could be extinct in the next decade. Poachers kill an estimated 55 elephants a day. Image courtesy of IFAW

When it comes to finding solutions at the nexus of wildlife crime and cybersecurity, hackathons provide opportunities for students to invent and innovate new technology for the good of the planet. This November, the Department of State is co-hosting Zoohackathon 2020, a global competition bringing together university students, coders, developers, and wildlife trafficking experts to create innovative solutions that address on-the-ground wildlife trafficking issues. Over the course of two and a half days, participants from five regional areas across the globe will compete virtually to address wildlife trafficking challenges, analyze the connections between wildlife trafficking and zoonotic disease in each region, and discuss locally focused case studies.

For Suijten, a focus on hard skills such as software engineering are critical, but relationship building and the ability to adapt and respond to circumstances in the field have proven to be invaluable to Hack the Poacher’s success.

“It’s amazing how much impact we can have with smart engineers, pragmatic tech, and a bit of duct tape,” Suijten says.

As people’s lives become more intertwined with the internet, the opportunities in cybersecurity continue to expand. To learn more about this growing field, visit the NOVA Cybersecurity Lab to explore stories of real-world cyber attacks, profiles of cybersecurity experts, and short animated videos that explain the need for cybersecurity, privacy versus security, cryptography (cyber code), and the nature of hacking.

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