The animal rights movement is nothing new, but it’s only in recent years that veganism, the most overt form of animal rights activism, has seen itself become more mainstream. A seemingly unrelated topic, especially prevalent nowadays, is that of human privacy, particularly as it relates to data-driven machine learning algorithms. Data is the new oil in this “machine learning first” paradigm we now live in. And data is like oil, it’s true- the more data you have on someone, the better a model can “know” them. Even better if you know intimate, personal details about their lives. Data is what fuels our models. Yes, fed with more data, models will improve, generally. But is it ethical? No, say many experts and pundits in the field. But what I wonder is, when will this discussion turn to include our animal friends?
Progress in animal rights
Testing on animals has now been banned in Canada, because it’s unethical. No rabbit or monkey actually wants to have its cheeks covered with blush, or its eyes filled with misplaced mascara and eye shadow. It violates the animal’s right to basic decency. As the argument goes, let’s treat animals like we treat humans. A human wouldn’t want to experience that sort of treatment against their will (or ever), and neither would an animal. As it should be. And now Canada recognizes that. The animal rights activists made a change, which is great.
Progress in human privacy rights
Digital privacy laws are now being put in place around the world, most notably GDPR. Privacy is a fundamental human right. And in our modern age, humans should be able to opt for privacy, to not give up their data to machine learning models and to the humans that put those models into production. It’s a work in progress, but GDPR has certainly moved the needle. So human privacy activists have made a change, and that’s great.
A voice for the voiceless
An idea that largely drives the animal rights movement is to “give a voice to the voiceless.” Animals need humans to advocate for them on their behalf. As the discussion around human privacy rights advances, I wonder how the discussion of animal privacy rights will evolve, and how humans will help give the animals a voice in our new digital age. If the goal is to treat animals like how we treat humans, then we’ll have to start discussing some idea of animal privacy rights.
Without it being defined, it’s clear that some notion of animal privacy rights is certainly important- for example, with the growing wealth of geotagged animal images, and the accuracy of image recognition systems, poachers now have access to a gold mine of information to help them with their hunting. So we know that we should at least limit do something to keep animals’ geolocation data private and away from the reach of poachers, especially those that are endangered and protected under animal protection laws. Someone will have to step up and push the idea of “animal privacy rights” through as law, at some point, in some form. If humans have a right to privacy, why shouldn’t animals?
Starting the conversation
What are privacy rights for animals? The topic is still in flux, but I believe that it’s clear that most people will agree that animals have a right to not have their location and characteristics publicized so that poachers can conveniently go and kill them, and perhaps drive them into extinction. Data scientists risk being the agents of that extinction. Just as we must take care to protect human’s privacy, data scientists must also take care of animals too.
What I really wonder is who will be the one to start the conversation. I wouldn’t say that animal rights activists come from the same group of people as digital privacy experts and data scientists. I would also go further and make a guess that these are two disjoint sets we’re talking about, two groups of people who don’t necessarily see eye to eye. Will digital privacy experts extend their arguments to animals, and become animal activists in the traditional sense as well, and eventually go vegan? Will animal rights activists extend their arguments to our new digital, data-driven age, and become privacy pundits themselves? And as long as these two groups of people remain disjoint (if I am correct in saying that they’re disjoint), will animal privacy rights, whatever that means, ever become a real concern?