Scientists face an ethical dilemma over what to do with their ‘human bycatch’
To study wildlife, Dr. Nyeema Harris, an assistant professor in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Michigan, uses camera traps — remotely triggered cameras that take pictures when they detect movement and body heat. Harris, a wildlife biologist, is not typically interested in humans, but sometimes they still end up in her photographs.
This is another example of researchers who may not be accustomed to thinking about human research ethics matters (in this case wildlife research and accidentally capturing images of people) and the question of how to inform their practice. This is really useful and important discussion. The issues in play are no different to government and others using CCTV, which they do without consent. We have created a somewhat artificial divide between research and real life. Any useful research reflects and interacts with real life. In this case, the capture is identifying some bad behaviour which is useful to know about and to act upon. The social good outweighs privacy rights. We should all be discussing this more.
Even in studies conducted in remote nature reserves, meant to capture wildlife at its wildest, people showed up.
When camera traps inadvertently capture human activity, it’s called “human bycatch.” And according to a 2018 University of Cambridge study, Harris is far from the only researcher to have ended up with humans in the data. The study included a survey of 235 scientists across 65 countries about their experiences with human bycatch, and 90% of them reported capturing some images of people in their most recent projects. Even in studies conducted in remote nature reserves, meant to capture wildlife at its wildest, people showed up.
As in Harris’s study, this human data doesn’t always stay “bycatch.” Nearly half of respondents to the Cambridge survey said they had used images of people apparently involved in illegal activity to inform wildlife management efforts. Many of them had reported images to law enforcement, others to conservation staff, and some to the media. All this, despite only 8% of projects having set out to capture images of people.