Side Note

Now even in nature there are cameras watching

Ah, the modern metropolis, where every day brings fresh, exciting ways to be swept up in myriad forms of data collection: DNA tests, Google searches, the use of “free” wifi provided by the municipal government. Add to that list a stroll through the woods. Research conducted by conservationists at the University of Cambridge suggests that, if your quiet place is of ecological interest, those Walden moments may not be as secluded and peaceful as you thought.

In a study published in September, authors Chris Sandbrook, Rogelio Luque-Lora, and William M. Adams surveyed ecologists and conservationists who deploy “camera-traps” — motion-detecting cameras commonly used to surveill uncommon or easily spooked animals — to learn about an ecosystem. Out of 235 respondents, over 90 percent had captured images of people, as well.

Most of these images were taken inadvertently; only a few of the researchers surveyed actually wanted their camera traps to take pictures of humans. Still, most of the respondents used the photos once in their possession, either to inform their understanding of the place they were studying or to pass along evidence of illegal activity, like poaching, to law enforcement. (Imagine if such cameras had captured the Clinton Correctional Facility escapees.)

If there’s one place we expect to avoid surveillance, it’s a secluded spot in nature, which is where these cameras are most likely to he placed. (Not everyone seemed perturbed by the cameras: some people reportedly used them as a chance to air exhibitionist tendencies, like “dancing and jumping naked in front of the camera.”) And if researchers haven’t established a rapport with the local community, the surveillance can have a pernicious effect. Writing in The Conversation, the authors offer the example of a South American woman who feared the camera was “being used to take pictures of her children with a view to kidnapping them.”

Unexpected surveillance alone is harmful, to say nothing of what happens to the images after the fact. While many researchers are taking steps to blur faces out of their photos, or commit to not sharing them publicly, it’s not hard to imagine law enforcement compelling someone to turn over their data. But the problem isn’t a cabal of conservationists, it’s that data collection comes with risks. The knowledge that we might be under surveillance where we least expect compels us to live as if someone is always watching.

Unplugging by going to the woods? Mind the surveillance cameras.