Ethics of Online Research into Illicit Trade of Cultural & Natural Resources

26 Jul 2021 - 09:00


The Ethics of Online Research into Illicit Trade of Cultural and Natural Resources online conference will take place online from 5-6 August, 2021. Diāna Bērziņa, Maastricht University & Dr Annette Hübschle, University of Cape Town, will present on  "Moving from immersed field-based ethnographies to studying digital marketplaces".

The Art, Feathers & Crime project, based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research (University of Glasgow), in collaboration with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (University of Kent), is excited to announce a forthcoming virtual conference that will cover the ethics and intricacies of conducting online research into illicit trade of cultural and natural resources, including the trafficking and illegal trade of wildlife, art and antiquities, jewellery, precious stones and minerals, timber, fossils, flora and fauna, etc. This conference is particularly timely amid the global pandemic, when the dimensions and impact of these illicit economies has increased online.

We are interested in the digital locations of crime convergence relating to the trafficking networks of cultural and natural resources and the ethics around investigating, mapping and monitoring these. With this conference, we hope to move the discussion around the trade and trafficking of cultural and natural resources towards a common understanding of the ethical foundations of interdisciplinary research into this topic. Ultimately, this conference will serve as a platform for knowledge exchange on sensitive, ethical and legal ways to investigate illicit trades on challenging mediums.

Conference Programme

All presentations will take place over Zoom - details will be provided to participants closer to the conference date. Abstracts can be found below.

Moving from immersed field-based ethnographies to studying digital marketplaces - Diāna Bērziņa (Maastricht University) & Dr Annette Hübschle (University of Cape Town)

Covid-19 has a profound effect on all areas of our work and life. We are part of a team researchers who were meant to undertake five years of exciting field-based research. Our ERC-funded research project entitled Trafficking Transformations (the TRANSFORM project) started a mere ten weeks before our respective home countries of Scotland, South Africa, New Zealand and the Netherlands went into hard lockdown. What was meant to be a fieldwork-heavy project had to change overnight. From studying relationships, networks and flows of collectable objects (antiquities, wildlife and fossils) in physical spaces, we had to move our inquiry into digital environments. As it turns out, we were not the only ones who had to adapt to the new world of COVID-19 regulations and lockdowns. Poachers, transporters, collectors, buyers, intermediaries and many others involved in our respective sites and flows of inquiry did the same. This changed state of affairs has created new research and ethics challenges. How do we collect data in an ethical manner on-line? How do we follow our respective objects from a real-world physical source to a digital market-place? And how do we best explore sentiments, meanings and relationships by scrutinizing on-line data? In our presentation we aim to show how we and our objects have adapted to the ‘new normal’.

Navigating the ethics of research into the illicit antiquities trade on YouTube - Evie Handby (Macquarie University)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for ethical research with social media. Instead, our ethical practices are contingent upon the platform(s) in question and the nature of the activity, group or phenomenon under examination. Yet, an added layer of complexity arises when such research involves highly questionable or unequivocally illegal material. This presentation explores the unique ethical and legal considerations YouTube presents for the collection, storage, and dissemination of sensitive, albeit publicly available, data. More specifically, it examines three critical challenges facing researchers who seek to investigate the illicit trafficking of cultural property on the popular video-sharing platform: (1) privacy, (2) vulnerability, and (3) informed consent. This presentation concludes by offering a set of recommendations for future ethical and reflexive research engagement with the illicit antiquities trade on such a rapidly evolving social media platform.

Quantifying desirability of birds in online pet trade - Katherine Hill (University of Adelaide)

Pet trade is shifting from traditional brick-and-mortar pet shops to online sales, which provides a unique opportunity to research the dynamics of Australian pet trade. We investigated the shift of species traded from physical to online trade of pet birds in Australia, and identified the leading drivers behind the purchase of alien and native species. We examined 31,500 online sales of birds collected from a popular online marketplace in 2019, and compared this to physical market inventories from 2011. We then identified what traits correlate with modern (from online data) species popularity, including attractiveness (colour, size, and ability to sing), ease of care, price, and availability. Generally, consumers have a greater preference for cheaper and easy-care species, which are available in a wide variety of colour mutations. The popularity of native Australian parrots is less influenced by rarity compared to international markets – instead, consumers prefer “iconic” and common species.

Reflections on researching antiquities & parrot trafficking on social media and auction sites - Dr Emiline Smith & Sicily Fiennes (University of Glasgow)

Our research concerns the trafficking of parrots and antiquities in Indonesia. Like many projects, we had to shift our research to the online space because of the global pandemic. This drastically impacted the way we searched for and engaged with stakeholders of these two illicit trades, including hard-to-reach and underrepresented voices such as community groups, poachers, dealers and transporters. In this presentation we reflect on our digital methodology and the ethics that underpin it, while tracing the shift from in-person to online trading of Indonesian parrots and antiquities. We reflect on the differences and similarities of both illicit trades, and the challenges and opportunities that the global pandemic has brought to studying them.

Challenges and opportunities for triangulation for monitoring wildlife trade on social media: findings from an exploratory survey - Alisa Davies (World Parrot Trust)

Social media posts promoting or facilitating wildlife trade can take multiple forms, with information useful for inferring the nature of activity within a post often scattered across different areas of platform functionality. This information can provide valuable insights into trade activity but poses logistical and ethical challenges for research and moderation. Using West-African bird traders as a case study, we quantified the prevalence of different types of publicly available information within profiles, imagery, text and comments and explored its value for making inferences about trade activity. We found only a minority of posts explicitly advertised a sale or used taxa or species terms, suggesting a focus on text analysis would overlook significant amounts of informative content. We conclude that triangulating insights, ancillary information and expert knowledge are vital for detecting trade activity particularly of an illicit nature, highlighting the value of expert-mediated triangulation for understanding wildlife trade on social media.

Ethical approaches to consider in framing online research into illicit trade of cultural and natural resources - Dr Kate Melody Burmon (Mount Saint Mary College)

This presentation examines the traditional ethical frameworks in the context of online research into the illicit trade of cultural and natural resources. In particular, it uses Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, and the Ethics of Care to determine what ethical considerations need to be taken into account when using, storing, analysing, and gathering data on cultural and/or natural resources. What duties or obligations apply to researchers when conducting studies on such topics? What consequences are likely to arise from the study design? What virtues and vices apply to situations of online research into these resources and how can and should these factor into ethical decisions? How does a caring disposition matter when creating research methods for projects involving cultural and natural resources, specifically when conducting these studies in a virtual space? This presentation seeks to answer these questions and explore the extent that these approaches can be used individually and collectively in research study design.

The illicit parrot trade in Indonesia: qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys using social media networks - Dr Chloe Heys (University of Staffordshire) & Dr Keila Meginnis (University of Glasgow)


Scripting illicit markets: the use of crime script analysis within the illicit trade of cultural and natural resources - Dr Christine A Weirich (University of Leeds)

While the illicit trade of cultural and natural resources present inherent difficulties regarding the research, investigation, and prosecution of such illicit networks, the use of crime script analysis (CSA) in the past decade has been used to analyse and provide insight into criminal networks or processes, with particular focus on online spaces. Crime scripting is a versatile tool which provides a framework that researchers and law enforcement alike can utilise and adapt to unique and complex crimes, while providing a better understanding of both the processes necessary for a crime to take place, and opportunities for prevention. This presentation will seek to give an overview of CSA, including successful examples of crime scripts for illicit networks, and consider future implications for research. Crime script analysis allows for creative methods of research - particularly regarding social media, journalistic resources, or secondary sources, and thus provide innovative ways in which research may be conducted.

Ivory sales online: ethical data collection and privacy concerns - Ruth Thompson (University of Kent)

Illegal wildlife trade has continued unabated despite COVID-19 lockdowns, which have further fueled the online replacement of brick-and-mortar trade. When this trade appears on the surface or deep web, it becomes mixed with a much larger quantity of legal and unrelated trade. For the ivory trade, this is further compounded by sellers’ use of keywords (or “code words”) associated with legally traded products. This makes detecting illegal ivory trade more difficult both practically and ethically, as automated data collection typically results in an overabundance of unrelated content. In this talk, the ethical considerations for curating a dataset to help inform the practicalities of detecting ivory trade and the efficacy of regulations such as the UK Ivory Ban will be discussed. This includes the choice of platform, data collection methods, and dealing with the presence of unexpected or unwanted user details.

No such thing as bad publicity? Reporting sensitive research about the illegal wildlife trade - Vanessa Lynn (University of Kent)

In the age of the internet, there is a need for discretion when discussing and publishing research about illegal wildlife trade activities. While the internet serves as a valuable tool for disseminating research, the web is equally being used to connect wildlife trade networks and widely share information between illicit actors. In order to keep pace with the methods used by illegal wildlife trade networks, it is crucial that these networks do not know what we know about them - that is, about certain specific details of their trade strategies and behaviours. Due attention must therefore be given to the potential unintended consequences of publications which reveal certain methods or results. Alongside this, researchers should consider how their research may be covered by media outlets. This is especially the case when discussing code words. Publications or articles discussing code word usage by wildlife traders may be accessed and shared by these same illicit trade circles. These traders may consequently alter the code words and other trade strategies they employ, to further evade detection. Such a reality raises questions about how to achieve a balance between maintaining discretion in scientific publications, and ensuring the reproducibility of scientific research.

Development of AI algorithms and a socio-technical workflow, in the FloraGuard study    & Use of web crawling technology in conservation science settings - Dr Carly Cowell, David Whitehead, Dr Stuart Middleton (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew & University of Southampton)

The illegal online trade in plants has potentially devastating impacts upon species poached for sale in digital markets, yet the scale of this threat to endangered species of flora remains relatively undetermined. Effectively monitoring and analysing the online trade in plants, requires an efficient means of searching the vastness of cyberspace, and the expertise to differentiate legal from potentially illegal wildlife trade (IWT). Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a means of improving the efficiency of both search and analysis techniques, although the complexities of wildlife trade, and the need to monitor thousands of different species, makes the automation of this technology extremely challenging. In this contribution, we review a novel socio-technical approach to addressing this problem. We suggest that by coupling the scalability of search algorithms with a sufficient level of human input required to evaluate wildlife trade data, the proposed methodological approach offers significant advantages over manual search techniques. Of equal importance to the tools themselves, however, is careful consideration of the type of data gathered and the way in which it is processed and presented. Here, we reflect on experiences drawn from practical use of the web crawling technology, including: use of open access content and assessment of online T+Cs; the collection of personal and special category data; pseudonymisation and anonymisation techniques and workflows; data/image analysis; considerations around institutional settings and DPIAs; data security; international data sharing; and the creation of a safe online training forum, populated with simulated IWT data.

Credibility and Ethics in Social Media Research - Dr Michelle Fabiani (University of New Haven)

Social media hold a plethora of potential data relevant to understanding the trafficking and trade of illicit goods, including cultural and natural resources. Yet, using these data requires an understanding of the complexities of what is considered private and by whom. This presentation will discuss these complexities using a recent project that sought to examine illicit drug sales on social media. To establish credibility in the project from both a public and academic perspective, we had to demonstrate that we had carefully considered the ethics of engaging with social media in an oft-times intentionally deceptive manner. The process we undertook can inform how future research that relies on social media to examine cultural and natural resources topics can do so both ethically and establish credibility in the findings.

Register for the conference here>>>