In 2017, a camera installed on the fringes of Corbett Tiger Reserve in northern India photographed an unsuspecting woman.
The local forest staff had set up the device discreetly to monitor passing tigers and elephants. But residents of a nearby village, which lacks toilets, also used the same area the camera was watching. Oblivious to the device, the woman had entered the camera’s field of view while squatting to relieve herself. A forest guard and a couple of forest watchers later shared her pictures on local WhatsApp and Facebook groups. What was meant to be a private moment turned into a public spectacle.
“It was like a joke, but it became a major case of sexual harassment,” says Trishant Simlai, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Sociology. “It didn’t become a bigger issue because the forest watchers were from the same village. But the camera trap ended up being used for something it wasn’t meant for.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident, Simlai found during the 14 months he spent in and around Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) for his Ph.D. In one of the first studies of its kind from the Global South, Simlai was trying to figure out what happens when technologies meant for conservation watch people instead.
After all, various technologies — from camera traps to drones and acoustic sensors — help researchers, conservation groups and governments keep a watch on wildlife and the places they inhabit. Some of the technologies have even transformed how we track animal movements, estimate their populations, and figure out what threatens their survival. But these technologies also end up watching people who use the same landscapes as wildlife, capturing their photos, videos, and voices, often without their knowledge.
Some of this footage may be innocuous. But it can also lead to precarious situations. Like in Austria in 2012, when a hidden camera set up in a forest snapped a local politician having sex, making him eligible for up to 20,000 euros ($22,000). In fact, many scientists who’ve set up camera traps in Africa, the U.S. and Asia have found “private” images of people who are naked, dancing or defecating. Several researchers have also seen images of local people engaged in what they deem to be “illegal activities.” At the same time, conservation surveillance technologies have posed a threat to researchers themselves, and to their work. In Iran, for example, a group of cheetah researchers using camera traps were charged with jail terms when they were suspected of espionage. Researchers globally have also had their camera traps stolen and damaged, and their drones shot at.
Still, despite conservation surveillance technologies frequently capturing footage of Indigenous and local communities, accidentally or intentionally, very few researchers have looked at how these tools actually impact the people who get watched.
This “human bycatch,” researchers like Simlai caution, can have serious ethical and social implications.
The Gaze Of Cameras
Let’s take camera traps, for instance. These cameras with motion sensors, which are triggered whenever an animal or a person crosses their path, are now routinely used by scientists, governments, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts across the world to monitor wildlife remotely.
In fact, it’s thanks to camera trap data that Corbett Tiger Reserve is estimated to have one of the world’s highest tiger numbers. “This has completely changed the value the tiger reserve holds,” says Rajiv Bhartari, the former principal chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden of the state of Uttarakhand, where CTR is located. Now, camera traps are routinely used to count tigers, identify “problem” individuals that may have attacked a human, and to find other threats in the forests.
These conservation goals still exist for camera traps, Simlai says. But the cameras are installed not just in the core areas of the park; they’re also in the buffer zones, where some human activity is allowed. So the devices also opportunistically photograph people. This has complex social and ethical consequences, which are disproportionately graver for women and people from marginalised communities, Simlai found during his Ph.D. research.
Local women, for instance, often venture into the forests, legally, to collect firewood, grass, and other nontimber forest produce. “They call the forest their maika [maternal home],” says Munish Kumar, a local social activist with the Samajwadi Lokmanch public advocacy group near CTR. “It is where they share stories about their lives with each other.”
Nobody seeks the women’s consent or tells them where the cameras are, Kumar adds, but someone might spot one, and word spreads around.
The very idea of camera traps in the forest — usually controlled by male forest staff who sometimes embellish the capabilities of the devices as being able to “watch and hear everything” — instills a sense of fear among many women, Simlai found. Some women change how they behave in the forest as a result, like avoiding loud conversations or songs, which is also a way for them to warn wildlife about their presence. Some change the way they dress. Others go to unfamiliar forested areas to avoid the devices altogether, increasing the risks of dangerous wildlife encounters. At the same time, many local men view camera traps positively, Simlai says: “Because women spend less time in the forest and come home sooner.”
Those in power also use “human data” from camera traps in problematic ways, Simlai found. Pictures from camera traps have led to cases of voyeurism and sexual harassment, for instance, like in the case of the woman snapped while relieving herself. She was both autistic and a Dalit, while the forest guard who shared her picture belonged to a privileged caste.
Camera-trap images have been used for moral policing, like an instance where a picture of a couple from a local village was reported to the police. Simlai also observed one forest officer pause at a camera trap image of two men from a marginalised community and profile them as “criminals” based on how they were dressed, despite the staff informing him that the forest department itself had hired the men to dig a canal inside the forest.
“Technology gives you increased power, but it depends on the person, how they use it,” Bhartari says. “Still, in Corbett, I think camera traps have been used more for good than the not-so-good reasons.”
But the lines between good and not-so-good can blur quickly.
For Koustubh Sharma, camera traps have been a gamechanger. “The kind of data, natural history information, and the kind of understanding we’ve got about wildlife in the last 25 years because of camera traps, it’s absolutely unparallelled,” says Sharma, science and conservation director of the Snow Leopard Trust, a nonprofit conservation organisation that works across 12 countries.
In every place they’ve set up cameras, Sharma and his colleagues have been careful to explain to the local residents how the devices work, and what they can and cannot do.
“There have been incidences where people were worried that camera traps placed up on the mountains could look into their homes further down,” he says. “So we showed them the images from the cameras, and they became comfortable that the cameras weren’t snooping into their homes; that the devices have a very narrow field of view, with very specific capability.”
Still, a few incidents made the researchers think more deeply about the ethical dilemmas of using camera traps. For example, in separate instances in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, their camera traps had snapped men carrying guns through areas where hunting wasn’t permitted; in Kyrgyzstan, this even led to the community losing its annual conservation bonus, a considerable amount. The researchers were bound by local laws to hand over the images to the authorities. “But it concerned us: Did this person really have sufficient warning to not carry the gun in that area? Had we explicitly informed them what the consequences would be?” Sharma says.
Meanwhile, the researchers were noticing another trend. More and more scientists, and conservation groups around the world were using camera traps to investigate poaching and threats to wildlife, using pictures of humans as a proxy for “threats.”
“There’s nothing wrong in using camera traps as antipoaching tools,” Sharma says. “But then you need to follow similar guidelines as are followed for CCTV or for other public surveillance tech: you need to warn, you need to give people enough opportunity to not commit the crime if the surveillance is to be used as a deterrent.”
Unlike public surveillance technologies, though, ethical guidelines don’t yet exist for conservation technologies. This is despite some conservation projects having historically been coercive and violent, particularly affecting marginalised and Indigenous communities. “And then we are adding technological tools to make it even more difficult for the communities,” Sharma says.
So, in November 2020, Sharma and his colleagues published a paper outlining a checklist of best practices that can minimise harm to both communities and researchers. These include seeking consent from communities where they have jurisdiction; having extensive and regular conversations with the people who use public lands or protected areas about what the cameras are being set up for, and what they’re not; understanding the local laws of using the technology; and explaining the legal consequences of being photographed to the local communities. In addition, they urge researchers to clearly spell out the purpose of their study in advance, and not use human images opportunistically.
It’s not just camera traps. Researchers are calling for more responsible use of numerous other conservation surveillance technologies that can also potentially harm people.
World Of Surveillance
Take drones, for example. These unmanned aircraft, usually fitted with high-resolution cameras to record photos and videos, offer a unique aerial perspective. This has transformed what researchers can do, such as counting threatened animals more reliably, finding rare plants, monitoring changes in forests and oceans, and tackling forest fires.
At the same time, drones are becoming increasingly popular as a solution to poaching. In fact, law enforcement authorities in several protected areas in Asia and Africa are using drones to specifically surveil people’s movements. But in the quest to catch poachers or curb illegal activities, some researchers worry that drones, too, might harm the local communities if used without ethical deliberation. Drones could be used to stereotype certain vulnerable groups of people as criminals, infringe upon residents’ privacy, create a climate of fear, and feed hostility among the people who are being watched. These consequences can then further alienate local communities and harm conservation in the long term, researchers say.
In Corbett Tiger Reserve, for instance, Simlai found that the men in charge of operating the drones, all of them from privileged castes, neither flew the drones based on any scientific rationale, nor surveilled every village equally. Before flying drones over villages with people mostly from privileged groups, for example, the drone team would get permission from the village headman, Simlai observed. The team would also take his advice on where to fly the drones — like whether there had been any movement of animals in the area, or if any “suspicious” people had recently arrived.
But the drone operators wouldn’t seek similar consent from villages with people mostly from marginalised communities. On the contrary, the team would appear in these villages unannounced and sometimes even actively spread misinformation about what the drone could do, such as saying the drones had facial-recognition abilities and were linked to people’s ID cards. This was done, some forest staff told Simlai, to create an “atmosphere of terror.”