By Laurel Neme
Wildlife trafficking crimes often go undetected and unchallenged, even though they threaten many endangered species, including elephants, rhinos, and pangolins.
Similarly, trade in illegally logged timber continues unabated, destroying forests and wildlife habitat.
That could now change, with the launch February 7 of the first secure, online whistle-blower platform dedicated to wildlife and forest crimes, called WildLeaks.
Whistle-blowers can play a vital role in providing actionable insider information that can lead to the identification, arrest, and prosecution of criminals, traffickers, and corrupt governmental officials.
Wildlife law enforcement officers around the world welcome this new tool. "Public tip-offs to enforcement is the key to shutting down wildlife crime," notes Kevin Bewick, head of the Anti-Poaching Intelligence Group of Southern Africa.
"Anything created to encourage others to provide information on wildlife crime, regardless of its ultimate usefulness, is a good idea," says Patrick Bosco, special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bosco has worked covert operations for more than 25 years.
The force behind WildLeaks is a team headed by the California-based Elephant Action League that includes the Environmental Investigation Agency (UK), Oxpeckers Center in South Africa, EcoJust in the Netherlands, Global Eye (which operates in Africa and Southeast Asia), 100Reporters, and others who prefer to remain anonymous for security reasons.
National Geographic Special Investigations director Bryan Christy is a founding member. "The most important weapon the world has against international wildlife traffickers and corruption is an informed public," Christy says. "The goal of WildLeaks is to give voice to the powerless, to both animals and the humans who risk their lives to protect them."
Project leader Andrea Crosta, the head of Elephant Action League, discusses the rationale for WildLeaks and how it will work.
What is WildLeaks?
WildLeaks is a venue for those with pertinent information to share their knowledge while remaining anonymous and without going directly to law enforcement officials. We're hoping to receive information that can help us launch or continue an investigation.
That might include things like the names and personal details of wildlife traffickers, information on specific events, documents that demonstrate a financial transaction linked to a crime, names of ships or shipping companies involved in the traffic, names of international buyers, names of businesses linked to illegal logging, corrupt public officials, and even shops and factories that deal with illegal wildlife products, like ivory, for example.
Why is WildLeaks necessary?
I think that the global fight against wildlife crime, which we're not winning, is still based on old approaches and ineffective strategies and a poor use of technology. The criminal syndicates and groups behind wildlife crime are ahead of us, faster, more coordinated, and better connected. New and innovative approaches are urgently needed.
From my past work in security, I saw in many fields that this leaks-based approach works. Of course it takes time. You have to build trust. But organizations that have a service like this actually get usable and pertinent information through this system. So I thought, let's have it for wildlife and forest crime. Let's build something neutral and independent that can reassure the person who has the information that they will remain anonymous.
How did your undercover investigation into al Shabaab and the ivory trade inspire WildLeaks?
I come from the security world. I've done many investigations, so this wasn't my first one. When we did the investigation on al Shabaab and the ivory trade, I realized there are a lot of people who know a lot. But if you don't go there and take it out somehow, this important information stays with the people. It doesn't reach the entities that can actually work on these items.
Of course I'm not expecting a peasant or Somali poacher to go online and send us information. WildLeaks is not after little poachers. WildLeaks is after traffickers, traders, businessmen, corrupt officers, shipping companies—the big guys.
That investigation taught me that there's a lot of information around. It's not only within the bad guys. There's a lot of information [that\ individuals and NGOs operating in Africa have, but they don't share it. Locally, they can't share it. An organization based in Kenya will never say something openly or denounce the law enforcement authority, unless it's really criminal. This is another reason to create something completely independent that is not based in those countries. Our secure servers are in Holland—and are very secure.
An article in The Ecologist called WildLeaks the WikiLeaks for wildlife. How are the two platforms similar or different?
We're not WikiLeaks. That's something that should be emphasized. There are two major differences. First, we're not after state or military secrets. We don't care about them. Second, the information we receive is not automatically leaked to the media. It's evaluated and verified, and then we decide [what to do with it\—maybe to launch an investigation, maybe to share it with trusted contacts within law enforcement, or maybe leak it to the media.
How does it work?
Once information is received, it will be evaluated and verified by the WildLeaks team of experienced and responsible professionals. Many of us have backgrounds in law enforcement, security, and investigations. We'll evaluate documents and tips using a sophisticated intelligence methodology, a vast network of contacts, and the latest technologies. For example, Bryan Christy, as an experienced investigative journalist [and author of National Geographic's October 2012 cover story, "Ivory Worship"\, will help us evaluate information on ivory and China and advise on the best action to be taken.
It's complex, delicate work with a lot of responsibility, but the group of people we're starting with has the experience, the capacity, and the tools to do this job.
The idea is to pass on validated information to where it will do the most good. It might be to trusted law enforcement officers. Or we might undertake an investigation. We'll decide case by case if it's better and more useful to facilitate an investigation or leak it to the media. There's no rule, but the goal is always to expose wildlife crimes and put the responsible individuals behind bars.
How secure is WildLeaks?
The system is able to receive information in two different ways: confidential or anonymous. It's well explained on the website. In both cases, the information is fully encrypted. The difference between the two is that the confidential submission will go through the regular https, and the anonymous submission will go through the Tor network, which is also called the darknet (because it is sometimes used by the bad guys). Tor is a software that allows anybody to browse the Internet and exchange any kind of file in complete anonymity. It's made up of a chain of proxies that work to hide the user's original IP address (your Internet identity) so that no other third entity can see what you're doing. It's a very secure system.
In both cases we won't know who the sender is or where they're from. The two submission options (confidential and anonymous) are not for us. We receive exactly the same information. It changes from the sender's point of view. If, for example, the sender lives in a country with a repressive regime, like China, and maybe he's reporting about a corrupted officer, someone who is making money from wildlife crime, then maybe it's suggested to download the Tor browser.
We really wanted to build a state-of-the art system. For most cases https is enough. But because we live in a complex world, for sure people will test us. So we wanted to make it bulletproof.
How does WildLeaks differ from hotlines set up by national wildlife agencies?
There are two main differences. First, we're not a government agency. If you're partially involved in the crime you're reporting, you'll be much more comfortable reporting whatever it is to us in complete anonymity than to call or email a government entity.
Second, many hotlines are literally hotlines. You have to pick up the phone and call, which isn't as secure.
They're different in the way they're presented to and perceived by potential sources. It's better to have a secure platform that's completely neutral that allows you to do this in a very, very secure way.
What do you hope will change as a result of this platform?
Society has to reevaluate the role of whistle-blowers. Some societies see whistle-blowers negatively. I love the English term: whistleblowers. If you try to translate it into Italian or French, they're always negative words.
The idea behind the word is a whistle-blowing referee. You see something wrong, and you blow the whistle. Citizens should start seeing themselves as referees. If you see something bad, then you blow the whistle. We are just allowing them to blow the whistle in an anonymous way. So the whistle will be heard, but nobody will know that it's you.
This new approach is really powerful because a lot of people know a lot of things. They just need to be willing to share them.