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Cambridge Analytica scandal could thwart efforts to tackle ivory trade on Facebook

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Academic fears stricter protection rules could stymie development of artificial intelligence-type tools that rely on 'Big Data' harvested from social network to flag up illegal wildlife content

Fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal could have dire implications for a project to tackle online sales of ivory, a conservationist working with police and tech companies fears.

Enrico Di Minin, a research fellow in conservation science at the University of Helsinki, told E&T stricter rules around sharing social media data with researchers could inadvertently stymie his work on algorithms that can scan Facebook pages and automatically spot attempts to sell illicit items like rhino horn, tiger teeth and ivory trinkets.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg was asked by a US politician at his Senate hearing earlier this year about American conservation groups’ claims that his Silicon Valley firm was contributing to the extinction of African elephants owing to the high volumes of ivory apparently being sold via the social network.

“I’d not heard that,” was Zuckerberg’s response to the senator’s question. He later pledged to step up efforts to review material and bolster security on the platform.

A committee of MPs in the UK Parliament is this morning hearing evidence from Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan, who is accused of having created a quiz app that collected data from as many as 87 million Facebook users. The data was then allegedly passed to the controversial analytics firm Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook this week took its first steps towards complying with new privacy rules designed to give users more control over their data - but Di Minin, who is part of an alliance between academics, law enforcement and tech firms aimed at countering wildlife crime, said he fears one unintended consequence of tighter privacy will be to frustrate efforts to purge Facebook of illegality.

He told E&T he could foresee problems as Facebook becomes “stricter and stricter, in terms of accessing data… if the platform doesn’t recognise the importance of sharing its data with academics”.

Large volumes of ivory are allegedly being sold via Facebook and other online platforms. Conservation groups want artificial-intelligence-type tools to be deployed that can combine computational image recognition with natural language processing to flag up content relating to ivory so it can be purged from the web before too many people view it.

“In answer to the question of how much ivory is sold out there, we don’t know yet. We are trying to develop tools that can tell us automatically what, roughly, would be the quantities,” Di Minin said. He added: “Most of the selling is done within closed groups. I’ve seen pictures and posts on Facebook groups, particularly where they were selling ivory trinkets and other things like that.

“As soon as someone has got the feeling they are being checked, they will change venue, create a new profile and a new group. The most promising way forward, which we are involved with, is this global coalition between the NGOs and social media and other web-based platforms.

“They are trying to get together to bring together academics such as myself, and law enforcement and the platforms like Facebook, to try and identify this trade immediately using some of the tools we are developing, and to try and shut it down.”

Di Minin said the algorithmic tools he has developed “access social media platforms via the API and download all the open development information that there is there, and instead of going through the content manually, we then basically use the algorithms to tell us what there is in there in a much more efficient way.”

Tens of thousands of African elephants are butchered annually to feed demand for ivory in the Far East and among investors in illegal commodities.

John Sellar, a former police detective who was head of enforcement at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) for 14 years, said: “This is a law enforcement issue but also a development issue. In some places in Africa you’ve got endangered species sitting in reserves or national parks, and the people living on the edge of those reserves or national parks are living in abject poverty.

Dr Richard Thomas, global communications director at UK-based organisation TRAFFIC, said demand for ivory had risen as parts of China and the Far East had become wealthier. 

He said: “It's a luxury item, and now people have got money in their pockets, they can afford to buy it. This is a repeating cycle that has taken place over a number of years.”

The Associated Press news agency this month reported that a secret complaint had been filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the USA alleging that Facebook’s failure to stop illicit traders violated the site’s responsibilities as a publicly traded company.

Facebook did not respond to the news agency’s request for comment about this.

An in-depth feature on new tactics for stopping the illegal ivory trade will appear in the next print issue of E&T.

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