electronic access to sensitive locality data
rom at ANBG.GOV.AU
Tue May 24 11:22:55 CDT 1994
Julian Humphries writes:
>> I seriously doubt the accuracy of the story about rare plants being collected
based on Internet Accessible plant databases (at the current time). Why,
because there aren't any!
>> I have not found a single USA based botanical database with non-type specimen
data available on the net. (the only non-USA one is ANBG).
Indeed and perhaps so - this week! But the issue is absolutely real and will
rapidly become more so as more collections come on line. It is a certainty
that some of the the more astute pirate collectors are already alert to the
eventual possibilities for easy access to detailed locations of organisms that
are valuable on the black-market or the open market.
I agree with Julian's view that the default position (whether via Gopher or via
in-person enquiries to herbaria and other biological collections) should be
open access to data. We are after all public institutions (or at least we are
in Australia). Nevertheless, it is the the real-time nature of internet access
that is the nub of the issue here, and the fact that it is without even the
cursory opportunity to vet enquirers that is offered by the traditional front
We have been discussing the issue here at ANBG, as far as rare plant locality
information is concerned, since early last year, and have had a reasonably
comprehensive discussion that has also drawn in personnel from the
Environmental Resources & Information Network, Australian Nature Conservation
Agency, CSIRO, and the Rare Or Threatened Australian Plants (ROTAP) listing and
The discussions arose from concerns expressed from various quarters about
security of locality data, especially for rare and endangered plants, given
that the Gopher system allowed relatively unchecked outside access to IBIS
herbarium records, i.e. real-time access to specimen label data held on the
IBIS at ANBG Herbarium.
The point was made repeatedly that there are no guarantees of data security
under present (pre-Gopher) systems, and that black market collectors and others
could, with peristence, usually find out where a plant occurs.
This was agreed by all participants, but the counter-point was made that one had
the advantage of being able to check bona fides of herbarium visitors, and that
an unauthorized collector seeking data from other sources had at least some
chance of being detected by people or organisations sympathetic to protection
prior to getting the data. Locality information contained in Specimens Seen
lists in publications could be (and is sometimes) selectively censored, with a
referral to the appropriate wildlife management authority for those wishing
The problem with Gopher is that it provides instantaneous access for outside
enquiries, whether bona fide or not, and there is no chance of policing data
flow before the event. The job with Gopher is therefore to seek appropriate
trip-wire procedures that have a good chance of screening out at least some
pirates. It was accepted by all that a sophisticated computer operator could
find avenues of database interrogation that might circumvent these trip-wires,
and that this could not be totally prevented without either highly complex
programming or banning public access altogether. The latter alternative was
not acceptable to anyone.
ERIN does not supply point localities for any taxa; enquirers wanting these are
referred to the appropriate herbarium or state conservation agency as the data
custodians and providers. ERIN supplies "fuzzed" geocode data for 1o or 0.5o
grid cells (or, in the case of Cape York, 6 km grid cells). This is deemed
broad enough that a black market collector is unlikely to gain much assistance
in locating a vulnerable taxon (unless its preferred habitat is known and is
very highly distinctive within the grid cell).
One problem with keeping totally open network access for all data, particularly
with listed Rare/Vulnerable/Endangered taxa, is that over the years
duplicates, direct site access, and other forms of locality information has
often been supplied by other herbaria or state management authorities on the
basis (explicit or implicit) that it would be subject to the consensus rule
governing herbarium access and enquiries, i.e. bona fide researchers only, with
referral to the management body offered if access is refused. Enforcement of
this, and exercise of the necessary discretion, has always been left to the
institution holding the specimens. There are known cases where we could expect
a partial or complete cut-off of information and assistance from wildlife
management officers if rare taxon information that they had supplied was on
open network access.
One participant pointed out that the (Australian) legal position governing
public access to specimen information (if not the actual specimen) was unclear:
does any herbarium have the right to refuse access? How does FOI legislation
affect our legal standing? It was agreed that in the longer run the legal
rights and obligations of collection and wildlife managers need to be
clarified. However it was also agreed that FOI-type obligations do not
necessarily require us to supply data in real time, and that delayed
information was a reasonable minimum step in being able to assess enquirers
against a likely threat to a taxon by unauthorized collecting.
One taxonomist argued strongly for an embargo on all locality information,
certainly for listed rare, vulnerabale, and endangered species of orchids, but
preferrably for all orchids. He cited cases to show that whole-population
collecting was a real threat in this family.
He also advanced the view that individual researchers should be able to request
embargo of whole records of taxa under study if they thought there was a risk
of taxonomic piracy (e.g. unscrupulous overseas taxonomists searching for "sp.
nov." records, retrieving information for these, and rushing to unrefereed
publication; cases are known, although not so far through database access and
not at CBG). A solution short of complete embargo (honour system) might be to
have a "work in progress" flag, with contact details, at the gateway to such
taxa. It was agreed by the meeting that this problem and possible solutions
needed separate argument and consideration.
John Briggs, oner of the compilers of the ROTAP listing over many years,
favoured some degree of restriction for all ROTAP taxa, of all categories (i.e.
R as well as V&E), but not necessarily of the whole record.
Briggs made a key point: that while black-market collecting was a problem for
some taxa, the greater threat to R&E taxa was through ignorance, of what they
are and where they occur. A real estate developer or local authority was much
more likely to damage or destroy rare taxa if they did not know that they were
there! Hence any information embargoes should be minimised for genuine users,
and any extra clearances should be subject to minimum necessary time delays.
It was acknowledged (and cases were cited) that developers had occasionally
been known to deliberately and pre-emptively destroy rare plants as soon as
they became aware of their presence and before any protective action could be
taken, but this was much less likely than the destruction-through-ignorance
A question remains as to whether whole-record or part-only information needed to
be embargoed. One problem with blanking only the plain-language locality field
(and perhaps generalising the geocode) might be that enquirers could view the
partial record, identify a distinctive phrase in another field, and retrieve
the whole record (or an adjacent one) by querying on that phrase (without using
the taxon name and invoking the embargo message).
Some other creative possibilities for circumventing embargoed information
(whether whole-record or part-record) were discussed, but are not discussed
Consensus of the meeting was for a solution including the following features:
* Records for sensitive taxa to be not available for external users without
further clearance. This to apply also to newly discovered taxa, not yet
ROTAP-listed, which are likely to qualify for ROTAP listing; herbarium staff to
use discretion in designating these.
* A notice to be inserted at the IBIS gateway stating that records for sensitive
taxa are not available without further clearance, and giving contact details.
Also to have an invokable electronic form requesting clearance for such taxa,
for completion by the enquirer (giving bona fides, maybe with referees); this
form to be capable of printing/postage by the enquirer, or direct email
* The embargo would need to be programmed such that queries on the NAME of an
embargoed taxon, or on the COLLECTOR NAME/NUMBER combination for a particular
record of the taxon, or on the REGISTRATION NUMBER for a particular record of
the taxon, would all invoke the same embargo notice and clearance application
form (in addition to the IBIS gateway notice).
* Password access for embargoed taxa to be available for approved external users
at ANBG discretion (e.g. probably National Parks services, other herbaria,
etc., with caution re sensitivity of information).
* Re technical implementation, a two-level Gopher was one possibility; one
level, including sensitive data, for local network users only (plus external
password holders); a second level, excluding sensitive data, for open-access
Curator of the Herbarium
Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra
email rom at anbg.gov.au
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