Technology and Surveillance

"To have an albatross around your neck."
According to, this is an idiom derived from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), in which English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes of a misguided sailor who kills an albatross and wears it about his neck in a display of guilt and remorse. The albatross, after all, was considered a harbinger of good luck once upon a time, according to the World Bird Sanctuary
A surveillance story in the news recently caught my attention: The albatrosses who catch pirates on the high seas, on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Being watched is nothing new on this blog, see Assume Everyone is Watching (September 2015), Evolving Issues of Body Cameras (July 2018). More recently, there was Artificial Intelligence Surveillance (August 2020), discussing the use of micro-cameras mounted on beetles (the bug, not the car).
Not to be outdone by those who were thinking small, others have now made the news by utilizing the majestic albatross. For the uninitiated, the albatross is a very large sea bird (wingspans can exceed 10 feet). They have been documented to fly millions of miles during their lifetimes. The BBC notes that their flights may total as much as "5.2 million miles during their lifetimes." These birds have significant range and endurance. Admittedly, it is noted that much of their time aloft might be more aptly described as gliding than flying, but that may not really be a distinction. 
Researchers have recruited these noble seabirds to participate in their oceanographic explorations, particularly as regards the inappropriate overfishing that is alleged to persist in certain parts of the world. In an attempt to limit abuse of the sea populations, there have been policing efforts directed at the ships which fish illegally. It turns out that effort has led to legitimate boats being "registered and licensed," as well as limited as regards "where and when they fish."
In order for such restrictions to matter, similarly to operation of a motor vehicle, there must be some element of monitoring and enforcement. The speed limit on the interstate is not very meaningful to many without the presence of the occasional trooper or deputy to remind us of our safety. 
The challenge comes, in fishing, with the fact that there are ships equipped to put to sea for long periods, distant from "land masses" and the simplest of monitoring and enforcement. Thus, the authorities are challenged in the monitoring of these commercial vessels. They complain that both air and sea patrols in pursuit of that effort is "rarely effective."
Thus, the noble albatross is proposed as an unwitting (it perhaps knows not what service it performs) cop that habitually cover "10,000km each in a 30-day stretch." The albatross by nature patrols the sea in search of food and in pursuit of its own ends, like fish and fishing detritus. They wander, sporadically stop on various uninhabited islands, and are natives to the somewhat harsh environment of the Antarctic. 
To avoid or limit the need for human patrolling, researchers have attached monitoring equipment to these sea birds. The birds have some proclivity for attraction to fishing boats as there is apparently some level of fish discharge that serves as a ready food source. The Albatross are thus encouraged to both find and follow these floating factories. 
The equipment attached to the birds, called "loggers," receives a signal from the "radar of boats, collecting information on where boats are in real time." Admittedly, different birds have different habits, and some are better at this mission than others. But, these loggers collect the signals of fishing vessel safety radar (that "allows vessels to detect each other, preventing collisions"). Those fishing illicitly are thought to turn off these radars. 
The results of this effort helped researchers to identify that a significant "20% . . 35%" of ships are not turning on that radar. They contend that this results in degradation of safety, and that the only reason to forego such a safety device would be that "it’s likely that these vessels operating without it in international waters were doing so to avoid detection, and so could be fishing illegally." It is not a conclusion that they are, but that they might me. 
The researchers therefore concluded to have the loggers communicate to the authorities when a vessel was identified that was not operating its collision radar. Thus, facilitating the authorities' ability to follow-up and investigate further. The researchers suggest that the albatross' range and pathways render it inherently adept at this surveillance. However, there is no representation made as to whether any illegal vessels have been stopped as a result. 
What the article suggests, however, may be more troubling. In a world in which bugs can be fitted with cameras and birds (think pigeons or gulls) could be fit with radio surveillance, what level of privacy might any of us enjoy? Might similar systems be used to identify cars that are not utilizing their anti-collision functions? Is this further development of surveillance progress or "Big Brother?" Might monitoring be positive or just another albatross around our (collective) necks?
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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