The Social Lives of Conservation Technologies and Why They Matter

New technologies offer a lot of potential for conservation, but are there potential risks to deploying these new technologies? In this first thought piece for the Ethics of Conservation Tech Group, Dr Chris Sandbrook makes the argument for a more considered approach when deploying technology in conservation projects. 

Date published: 2015/11/02

Over the last few years the conservation movement has been enthusiastically deploying new surveillance technologies that make it possible to monitor and protect the natural world in ways once unimaginable. There are camera traps that can send live images of warthogs, lions and blurry things with legs direct to your desktop. There are unmanned aerial vehicles (or drones) that buzz overhead, filming orang-utan nests or measuring forest loss. There are tiny tracking devices that can be fitted to wild animals, allowing them to be followed from space as they wander around the Kenyan plains or fly across the ocean. And there are computer programmes that can predict the behaviour of poachers and send drones out to intercept them.

All of this is very exciting for conservationists. New gizmos promise better and cheaper data that can be used to monitor populations and understand threats, and new ways to tackle those threats. What’s more, some of the outputs of the technology are visually appealing and easily communicated to the general public through websites and smartphone apps, meaning that technologies can also be used to raise funds and promote public awareness.

Are there any potential risks or dangers lurking in the shadows as conservation rushes to deploy the latest gadgets?
Dr Chris Sandbrook

Clearly new technology has a lot of potential for conservation, and websites like this one showcase the range of applications that are being developed. But is there another side to this story? Are there any potential risks or dangers lurking in the shadows as conservation rushes to deploy the latest gadgets?

In my view, the answer to this question is yes. Conservation technologies come with a range of risks that are connected to how they relate to people – what you might call the ‘social life’ of these technologies. These problems can be thought of in two broad categories: harm done to people, and harm done to conservation effectiveness.

A major concern in terms of harm to people is privacy. When might surveillance technologies used by conservation be thought of as invading the privacy of people who might be observed, whether deliberately or otherwise? Should people be given advanced warning that they might be filmed, photographed or listened to? Is it ok to monitor everybody, even when there is no reason to suspect they are doing anything illegal? What might be done with the data collected by these technologies, and who should have access to it? All of these questions are asked on a regular basis when thinking about the ethics of social research projects, but it seems that very little attention has been given to them so far in the conservation context. Given the negative publicity associated with drones and mass monitoring by states around the world, it seems likely that many people living and working in areas where surveillance technology is deployed will not be happy about it. Indeed, in several cases drones used for conservation have already been shot down, and camera traps deliberately vandalised or stolen.  

This brings us on to the second problem, which is how technology might undermine the very conservation objectives it is intended to support. It is a well-established orthodoxy in conservation that projects work better when local stakeholders are supportive of conservation goals, and many conservation organisations invest a great deal of energy and resources into stakeholder consultations and education campaigns to garner such support. If the use of technology is seen as dangerous, threatening or an invasion of privacy by local people, important relationships with local communities may be damaged, with negative consequences for conservation. In areas that have a history of conflict between local people and conservation (for example due to evictions or the loss of livelihood opportunities), unwanted surveillance technologies might rekindle old enmities and return conservation to the unfortunate ‘fortress’ reputation that many have tried hard to shake off. This would be a backwards step and could reduce rather than increase the chances of conservation success.

Balancing the UAV. Ed McCaffery of Topcon adjusts the balance point of an unmanned aircraft as colleague Simeon Kateliev looks on.

© Conservation  Media / WWF-US

If I am right and surveillance technologies used by conservation have the potential to do harm to people and in some cases undermine conservation goals, what should be done about it? Certainly I would not advocate getting rid of such technology altogether – it really does have great potential. Instead, I believe there is a need to do three things: recognise the problem, carry out research into how the social impacts of conservation technologies play out in practice, and develop some careful processes for regulating their use.

The first step is to raise awareness that new technologies are not socially and politically neutral. It is quite worrying that even very recent articles reviewing the uses of new technologies for conservation give ample room to discussing technical challenges but say nothing about social issues (other than the risk of data falling into the hands of criminals). For example, Stuart Pimm and colleagues are excited about the potential of drone ‘swarms’ maximising surveillance. They see challenges in the costs and maintenance of these devices, but say nothing about how they may affect those on the ground. Overcoming ignorance of this issue is an important priority and hopefully this article can make some small contribution to that process.

Research into the social impacts of surveillance technologies could investigatecould investigate how local people perceive different kinds of technology (e.g. are rotary wing drones more scary than fixed wing drones?), how perceptions are influenced by awareness raising campaigns, and whether there are conditions under which the use of surveillance technology is more likely to generate a hostile reaction (e.g. in places with a history of conflict). In some cases almost experimental research designs could be implemented in which different combinations of technologies and mitigation measures are deployed to find out how they differ in their social results. In other cases detailed analysis of sites where surveillance tools have already been deployed could be used. The results of all these research approaches would provide a wealth of valuable information that could inform the future use of technologies in conservation.

In terms of regulation, legal frameworks governing the use of surveillance technologies are wildly divergent between countries. In some places technologies are completely banned (such as the use of drones in US national parks), whereas in others there are no relevant laws at all. It seems unlikely that the legal environment will become harmonised any time soon, so instead I believe the conservation industry should get together to develop its own best practice guidelines to minimise negative social impacts of technology. These could build on the existing human rights framework of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights, an agreement designed to ensure that conservation organisations respect human rights that has been signed by many leading international NGOs.

New surveillance technologies are an exciting breakthrough for conservation. But in the rush to deploy new gadgets in the field, it is important to remember that they will have social and political as well as environmental consequences. Failing to take these issues into account could lead to serious unintended consequences for conservation. I hope that this website can play a part in stimulating a much-needed debate on these issues and how they can be tackled.

Chris Sandbrook is a Lecturer in Conservation Leadership at the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. He is a political ecologist who works on the relationship between biodiversity conservation and society, particularly in developing countries. An extended version of the argument in this blog can be found in a newly published Open Access article in the journal Ambio.

Do you agree? Do conservationists need to be more cautious when deploying new technology?

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