04/19/2019

Do Plants And Birds Deserve Online Privacy?

4:17 minutes

a human arm holding a smartphone is taking a picture of a black bird in a desert, dry environment
Credit: Shutterstock

Spring is a great time to get out and enjoy the outdoors—and increasingly, people are using citizen science apps like eBird and iNaturalist to record sightings and share data. But the public nature of some citizen science platforms can make them liable for abuse, such as people using location data collected by the apps to disturb—or even poach—threatened species. The makers of the birding app eBird recently put in place measures to obscure the location information collected for species considered threatened in an area.

April Glaser, a technology reporter for Slate, says that the rise of these open databases of information, in a way, “gamified” species sightings. She joins Ira to talk about providing a level of online privacy for the natural world.


Further Reading

  • Read April Glaser’s reporting on the citizen science apps revealing public data on the natural world on Slate.
  • Learn more about eBird’s data privacy policies.

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Segment Guests

April Glaser

April Glaser is a technology staff writer for Slate. She’s based in Oakland, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing. 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

Because every story has a flip side. You know, it’s spring. You want to get outdoors and get into nature already. And if you’re like a lot of folks, maybe you’re using an app to discover and appreciate the plants and animals around you. Science citizen apps, citizen science apps that let you log an observation or ask for help in identifying anything. 

But there is a downside. You can love nature almost to death. Joining me now to talk about that is April Glaser. She’s a technology writer at Slate, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Welcome to Science Friday. 

APRIL GLASER: Thanks. Great to be here. 

IRA FLATOW: All right. So all these citizen science nature apps, what’s the good thing about them? 

APRIL GLASER: Well, obviously, we want to encourage people to care about and be fascinated by the natural world. And one way to do that is to log what you find and then to see what other people have found and then go and try and find that yourself. And so citizen science nature apps kind of create a community of learning around nature and that’s a very, very good thing. Because the more people learn, the more people care, and then hopefully the more we’d be wanting to protect it. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so that they kind of like making spotting things into a game, right? 

APRIL GLASER: Yeah often. I mean, we try to get more identifications, or they often have kind of competitions to find more amphibians or more flowers, and wildflowers spotting competitions. But really it’s not about competing as much as it is about just encouraging people to get out there, find more things, and also it benefits science because then we have more data about what’s out there. 

IRA FLATOW: So what could be bad about this? 

APRIL GLASER: Well, when we share things online, especially open and to the public, that means that nefarious actors can see it, too. And one of the great things about these citizen science data apps is that it allows people to share hard to find things, which are really exciting, but that means that poachers can also find them. 

And so a few years ago eBird, which is the largest citizen science database in the world, realized that it had to fundamentally change its code to obfuscate and hide threatened birds to protect them from poachers who would go to this birder app, and then be able to find one enthusiastic nature lover spotted a rare bird and inadvertently take it. Or not inadvertently, but just take it. Poaching rather. 

IRA FLATOW: OK. So is there a middle ground where we can find some peace here? 

APRIL GLASER: Yeah. So different apps like eBird and iNaturalist have worked really hard in recent years to obfuscate and hide threatened taxa. And so when you enter in a bird that is on a sensitive species list for eBird, then it’s not going to show up publicly. You’ll be able to see it on your list so you can know what you saw, but it won’t be shared to a public list. And when you share your list with other people they won’t be able to see it. 

And so they’ve had to kind of rebuild their system entirely because it was built fundamentally to be as open as possible. And so they had to kind of restructure their database. Same with iNaturalist. Now they just show you kind of the general area where the specimen was found. So it’ll say that was found in Oakland, California, for example, which it doesn’t really tell you much. But it won’t tell you the exact mountain or latitude and longitude as it will with other plants. 

IRA FLATOW: I was going to say is this a really new idea because if you talk to an expert, let’s say you’re a mushroom expert and you discover a really rare mushroom, you’re not going to tell everybody where it is, are you? 

APRIL GLASER: Yeah. So for a long time it’s been kind of standard practice and etiquette in kind of people– the native plant community and the birdwatching community– to not share information about threatened species. Even scientists that publish papers won’t put exact coordinates about what they found even if they have that data and they kind of shared among scientists. They won’t publish that. 

But as this stuff gets more popular, and as it gets online where everybody can see it, we’ve had to really build that into the systems. But it’s true, you know? What, in a previous generation might have taken poachers years to map, can now be downloaded in minutes. 

IRA FLATOW: And there you have it. Thank you very much, April, for taking time to be with us today. 

APRIL GLASER: Thanks. It was a lot of fun. 

IRA FLATOW: April Glaser, technology reporter for Slate, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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