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Study: Poachers are trying to hack animal trackers, intercept signals

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Animal trackers were designed to help protect endangered species but intercepted signals could actually be a boon to poachers.

Poachers are turning to hacking and “cyber poaching” to stay one step ahead of animal conservationists, according to a new study.

The paper, co-published by researchers from several universities in Conservation Biology, claims that poachers are intercepting GPS signals sent from trackers that have been placed on protected animals. The researchers point out that while electronic tagging of endangered or at-risk animals has been beneficial, there are a “number of troubling and unanticipated issues” at the same time.

“Animal tracking can reveal animal locations (sometimes in nearly real-time), and these data can help people locate, disturb, capture, harm, or kill tagged animals,” the paper said.

In one case, dubbed “cyber poaching,” an Indian conservationist’s email account was reportedly targeted to gain sensitive data about a Bengal tiger. The tiger had been equipped with a $5,000 GPS tracker that sent location data to the email address every couple of hours. In this instance the alleged hackers were unsuccessful in scooping up the GPS data from the account after the conservationist was alerted to activity on the account, supposedly from a source over 600 miles away.

The researchers go on to claim that poachers in Yellowstone Park were able to use relatively cheap signal receivers to pick up on GPS signals from tagged wolves.

In another example, tagged white sharks in Australia provided hunters with valuable data on when sharks were congregated in one spot. The data was originally intended to advise beach-goers of when the waters were unsafe for swimming. Instead, this data was allegedly abused by cullers.

“A negative public perception of tagging and tracking could result in protest or cessation of research,” said the researchers.

The authors of the study are calling for more in-depth research into the use of animal tracking and how it can have negative unintended consequences on the wildlife it was designed to protect in the first place.

They suggest developing clearer data-sharing policies from regulators that would control who can access data on animals’ locations. The researchers also raised the alarm over the availability of telemetry devices whose use can be abused. They are calling on regulators “to develop clear and enforceable policies and regulations that limit the ability of the public to use telemetry tools for activities that are inconsistent with the mission of management agencies.”

Manufacturers of these devices need to act as well to ensure the products are more secure and employ encryption, the study authors added.