The Ethics of Biosurveillance

  • S. K. DevittEmail author
  • P. W. J. Baxter
  • G. Hamilton


Governments must keep agricultural systems free of pests that threaten agricultural production and international trade. Biosecurity surveillance already makes use of a wide range of technologies, such as insect traps and lures, geographic information systems, and diagnostic biochemical tests. The rise of cheap and usable surveillance technologies such as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) presents value conflicts not addressed in international biosurveillance guidelines. The costs of keeping agriculture pest-free include privacy violations and reduced autonomy for farmers. We argue that physical and digital privacy in the age of ubiquitous aerial and ground surveillance is a natural right to allow people to function freely on their land. Surveillance methods must be co-created and justified through using ethically defensible processes such as discourse theory, value-centred design and responsible innovation to forge a cooperative social contract between diverse stakeholders. We propose an ethical framework for biosurveillance activities that balances the collective benefits for food security with individual privacy: (1) establish the boundaries of a biosurveillance social contract; (2) justify surveillance operations for the farmers, researchers, industry, the public and regulators; (3) give decision makers a reasonable measure of control over their personal and agricultural data; and (4) choose surveillance methodologies that give the appropriate information. The benefits of incorporating an ethical framework for responsible biosurveillance innovation include increased participation and accumulated trust over time. Long term trust and cooperation will support food security, producing higher quality data overall and mitigating against anticipated information gaps that may emerge due to disrespecting landholder rights.


Biosurveillance Privacy Biosecurity Food security Ethics Autonomous agriculture Value-centred design Responsible innovation 



We are grateful to Angela Daly and Tony Clarke and anonymous reviewers for comments that significantly improved the manuscript. PB and GH acknowledge support of the Australian Government’s Cooperative Research Centres Program.


  1. Abowd, J. (2017). How will statistical agencies operate when all data are private? Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality. Scholar
  2. Acquisti, A., Brandimarte, L., & Loewenstein, G. (2015). Privacy and human behavior in the age of information. Science,347(6221), 509–514.Google Scholar
  3. Altieri, M. A. (2018). Agroecology: The science of sustainable agriculture. Boca Raton: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  4. Animal Health Australia, & Plant Health Australia. (2013). Farm biosecurity. Accessed 15 April 2018.
  5. Arnot, C. (2018). Size matters: Why we love to hate big food. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  6. Bashford, A. (1998). Quarantine and the imagining of the Australian nation. Health,2(4), 387–402.Google Scholar
  7. Basu, S., Omotubora, A., Beeson, M., & Fox, C. (2018). Legal framework for small autonomous agricultural robots. AI & Society. Scholar
  8. Bawden, O., Kulk, J., Russell, R., McCool, C., English, A., Dayoub, F., et al. (2017). Robot for weed species plant-specific management. Journal of Field Robotics,34(6), 1179–1199.Google Scholar
  9. Beale, R. (2008) ‘One biosecurity: A working partnership the independent review of Australia’s Quarantine and Biosecurity Arrangements Report to the Australian Government’. Available at: Accessed 30 April 2018.
  10. Beasley, D., & Shivas, R. (2017). Collections procedure—Accessioning. Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Queensland. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  11. Bernal, P. (2014). Internet privacy rights: Rights to protect autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Berni, J. A., Zarco-Tejada, P. J., Suárez, L., & Fereres, E. (2009). Thermal and narrowband multispectral remote sensing for vegetation monitoring from an unmanned aerial vehicle. IEEE Transactions on Geoscience,47(3), 722–738.Google Scholar
  13. Biosurveillance Science and Technology Working Group (2013, 14 June) ‘National biosurveillance science and technology roadmap’ Executive office of the president National science and Technology Council. National Science and Technology Council Committee on Homeland and National Security, Subcommittee on Biological Defense Research and Development, United States Government. Available at: Accessed 16 January 2017.
  14. Black, E. (2001). IBM and the Holocaust: The strategic alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s most powerful corporation. New York: Random House Inc.Google Scholar
  15. Braun, B. (2007). Biopolitics and the molecularization of life. Cultural Geographies,14(1), 6–28.Google Scholar
  16. Brodie, G., Ryan, C., & Lancaster, C. (2012). Microwave technologies as part of an integrated weed management strategy: A review. International Journal of Agronomy, 2012.
  17. Brundage, M., Avin, S., Clark, J., Toner, H., Eckersley, P., Garfinkel, B., et al. (2018). The malicious use of artificial intelligence: Forecasting, prevention, and mitigation. arXiv preprint arXiv:1802.07228.
  18. Burton, L., Barker, E., Prendergast, J., & Collins, A. (2018). What would Australia look like without live exports? ABC News. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  19. Cairns, G., Goodwin, P., & Wright, G. (2016). A decision-analysis-based framework for analysing stakeholder behaviour in scenario planning. European Journal of Operational Research,249(3), 1050–1062. Scholar
  20. ChemCert. (2018). ChemCert is an industry based non-profit organisation for the training, up-skilling and industry accreditation for users of Agricultural and Veterinary (AgVet) chemicals. Accessed 10 April 2018.
  21. Christensen, P., Gillingham, K., & Nordhaus, W. (2018). Uncertainty in forecasts of long-run economic growth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,115(21), 5409–5414. Scholar
  22. Civil Aviation Safety Authority CASA 96/17. (2017). ‘Direction—Operation of certain unmanned aircraft’ Australian Government F2017L01370. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  23. Cliff, A. D., Haggett, P., & Smallman-Raynor, M. R. (1998). Detecting space—time patterns in geocoded disease data. Cholera in London, 1854 measles in the United States, 1962–95. In L. Gierl, A. D. Cliff, A.-J. Valleron, P. Farrington, & M. Bull (Eds.), Geomed’97: Proceedings of the international workshop on geomedical systems rostock, Germany, September 1997 (pp. 13–42). Wiesbaden: Vieweg + Teubner Verlag. Scholar
  24. Commonwealth of Australia. (2015). ‘Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper’ D. o. A. a. W. Resources. Canberra. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  25. Coote, G. (2018, August 28). Exposure of animal cruelty could be at risk as debate around unauthorised filming on farms intensifies. ABC News. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  26. Cotton Research Development Corporation, & Australian Government National Landcare Programme. (2018). MyBMP. Accessed 10 April 2018.
  27. CSIRO. (2009). ‘Invasive alien species threaten global biodiversity’ ECOS. Canberra: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation 149 Jun–Jul. Available at:
  28. Daly, A., Devitt, K., & Mann, M. (Eds.). (2019). Good data. Amsterdam: Institute for Network Cultures.Google Scholar
  29. Davies, A. (2019, January 31). Photos reveal Queensland cotton farms full of water while Darling River runs dry. The Guardian. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  30. Department of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry. (2013). ‘Come Clean, Go Clean’ D. o. A. F. Forestry. Queensland: Queensland Government. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  31. Despommier, D. (2013). Farming up the city: The rise of urban vertical farms. Trends in Biotechnology,31(7), 388–389. Scholar
  32. Dibden, J., Higgins, V., & Cocklin, C. (2011). Harmonising the governance of farming risks: Agricultural biosecurity and biotechnology in Australia. Australian Geographer,42(2), 105–122.Google Scholar
  33. Dibden, J., Potter, C., & Cocklin, C. (2009). Contesting the neoliberal project for agriculture: Productivist and multifunctional trajectories in the European Union and Australia. Journal of Rural Studies,25(3), 299–308.Google Scholar
  34. Dwork, C., & Roth, A. (2014). The algorithmic foundations of differential privacy. Foundations and Trends in Theoretical Computer Science,9(3–4), 211–407. Scholar
  35. European Parliament and Council. (2016). General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  36. Faiçal, B. S., Freitas, H., Gomes, P. H., Mano, L. Y., Pessin, G., de Carvalho, A. C., et al. (2017). An adaptive approach for UAV-based pesticide spraying in dynamic environments. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture,138, 210–223.Google Scholar
  37. Farm Biosecurity Program (2012). Pest surveillance data sheet. Accessed 30 April 2018.
  38. Finn, R. L., & Wright, D. (2012). Unmanned aircraft systems: Surveillance, ethics and privacy in civil applications. Computer Law & Security Review,28(2), 184–194.Google Scholar
  39. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2011). International Plant Protection Convention (1997).Google Scholar
  40. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2018). International standards for phytosanitary measures Accessed 15 April 2018 2018.
  41. Freeman, S. (2007). Justice and the social contract. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Friedman, B., & Kahn, P. H. J., Jr. (2003). Human values, ethics, and design. In J. A. Jacko & A. Sears (Eds.), The human–computer interaction handbook. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  43. Gago, J., Douthe, C. B., Coopman, R., Gallego, P., Ribas-Carbo, M., Flexas, J., et al. (2015). UAVs challenge to assess water stress for sustainable agriculture. Agricultural Water Management,153, 9–19.Google Scholar
  44. Gebbers, R., & Adamchuk, V. I. (2010). Precision agriculture and food security. Science,327(5967), 828–831.Google Scholar
  45. Global Agriculture & Food Security Program. (2018). Focus areas. Accessed 4 March 2019.
  46. Griffin, R. (2014). The future of regulatory plant science. In G. Gordh & S. McKirdy (Eds.), The handbook of plant biosecurity: Principles and practices for the identification, containment and control of organisms that threaten agriculture and the environment globally. Dordrecht: Springer. Scholar
  47. Habermas, J. (1987). Toward a rational society. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  48. Habermas, J. (2008). Between naturalism and religion: Philosophical essays. Malden, MA: Polity.Google Scholar
  49. Hamilton, G., Gonzalez, L. F., & Puig, E. (2016). DAW00245 Yield loss response curves for host resistance to leaf, crown and root diseases in wheat and barley: Initial evaluation of digital image capture, processing and analysis to quantify foliar disease expression. 31 July 2016. Queensland University of Technology. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  50. Hecht, B., Wilcox, L., Bigham, J. P., Schöning, J., Hoque, E., Ernst, J., et al. (2018). It’s time to do something: Mitigating the negative impacts of computing through a change to the peer review process. ACM Future of Computing Blog. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  51. Herwitz, S. R., Johnson, L. F., Dunagan, S. E., Higgins, R. G., Sullivan, D. V., Zheng, J., et al. (2004). Imaging from an unmanned aerial vehicle: Agricultural surveillance and decision support. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture,44(1), 49–61. Scholar
  52. Ingram, A. (2009). The geopolitics of disease. Geography Compass,3(6), 2084–2097. Scholar
  53. Jakku, E., Taylor, B., Fleming, A., Mason, C., Fielke, S., Thorburn, P., et al. (2018). “If they don’t tell us what they do with it, why would we trust them?” Applying the multi-level perspective on socio-technical transitions to understand trust, transparency and benefit-sharing in Smart Farming and Big Data. In 13th European international farm systems association symposium. Chania, Greece, pp. 1–5. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  54. Johnson, H. (2015). Eating for health and the environment: Australian regulatory responses for dietary change. QUT Law Review,15(2), 139. Scholar
  55. Jones, G. P. J. IV., Pearlstine, L. G., & Percival, H. F. (2006). An assessment of small unmanned aerial vehicles for wildlife research. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 34(3), 750–758.Google Scholar
  56. Kalaris, T., Fieselmann, D., Magarey, R., Colunga-Garcia, M., Roda, A., Hardie, D., et al. (2014). The role of surveillance methods and technologies in plant biosecurity. In G. Gordh, & S. McKirdy (Eds.), The handbook of plant biosecurity: Principles and practices for the identification, containment and control of organisms that threaten agriculture and the environment globally.Google Scholar
  57. Kamm, F. M. (2007). Intricate ethics: Rights, responsibilities, and permissible harm. Oxford: OUP.Google Scholar
  58. Keogh, M., & Henry, M. (2016). The implications of digital agriculture and big data for Australian Agriculture Research Report, Australian Farm Institute. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  59. Kimber, R., Davidson, J., Baker, G., DeGraaf, H., Hill, K., Zeller, L., et al. (2016). New technologies for airbourne pest and disease surveillance. Paper presented at the 19th Symposium on Precision Agriculture in Australasia.Google Scholar
  60. Koops, B.-J., Newell, B. C., Timan, T., Skorvanek, I., Chokrevski, T., & Galic, M. (2016). A typology of privacy. The University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law,38, 483.Google Scholar
  61. Kreps, S., & Kaag, J. (2012). The use of unmanned aerial vehicles in contemporary conflict: A legal and ethical analysis. Polity,44(2), 260–285.Google Scholar
  62. Kroon, F. J., Thorburn, P., Schaffelke, B., & Whitten, S. (2016). Towards protecting the Great Barrier Reef from land-based pollution. Global Change Biology,22(6), 1985–2002.Google Scholar
  63. Leben, D. (2019). Ethics for robots: How to design a moral algorithm. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  64. Levine, J. M., & D’Antonio, C. M. (2003). Forecasting biological invasions with increasing international trade. Conservation Biology,17(1), 322–326.Google Scholar
  65. Lush, D. (2018). The right to farm versus the right to choose: society is having the final say. Farm Policy Journal, John Ralph Essay Competition—Winner 2018. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  66. Marmor, A. (2015). What is the right to privacy? Philosophy & Public Affairs,43(1), 3–26. Scholar
  67. Maye, D., Dibden, J., Higgins, V., & Potter, C. (2012). Governing biosecurity in a neoliberal world: Comparative perspectives from Australia and the United Kingdom. Environment and Planning A,44(1), 150–168.Google Scholar
  68. Mayfield, B. (2016). John Deere hands-free guidance system continues its evolution: Early GPS receivers helped chart the course for the modern systems of today. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  69. McCool, C., Beattie, J., Firn, J., Lehnert, C., Kulk, J., Bawden, O., et al. (2018). Efficacy of Mechanical Weeding Tools: A study into alternative weed management strategies enabled by robotics. IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters,3(2), 1184–1190.Google Scholar
  70. McIntyre, K. (2016, May-Apr). Smart traps to provide pest early warning. Grains Research and Development Corporation, Ground Cover Magazine. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  71. Metz, C. (2018, 20 February). Good news: A.I. Is getting cheaper. That’s also bad news. New York Times. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  72. Mills, P., Dehnen-Schmutz, K., Ilbery, B., Jeger, M., Jones, G., Little, R., et al. (2011). Integrating natural and social science perspectives on plant disease risk, management and policy formulation. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,366(1573), 2035–2044.Google Scholar
  73. Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Office of the Information Commissioner Queensland. (2018). Drones and Privacy Principles. Office of the Information Commissioner Queensland. Accessed 5 March 2019.
  75. Pascalev, M. (2016). Privacy exchanges: restoring consent in privacy self-management. Ethics and Information Technology. Scholar
  76. Pearce, R. (2018, July 25). Australian government ‘drunk on surveillance’. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  77. Phelps, M. (2018, November 7). Farmers say QLD tree laws are a miserable failure. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  78. Pimbert, M. P. (2018). Food sovereignty, agroecology and biocultural diversity constructing and contesting knowledge. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  79. Plant Health Australia. (2001). ‘Australian Plant Pest Database’. 30 April 2018. Available at:
  80. Post, R. C. (2000). Three concepts of privacy. Geo. LJ,89, 2087.Google Scholar
  81. Puig, E., Gonzalez, F., Hamilton, G., & Grundy, P. (2015, 29 Nov–4 Dec 2015). Assessment of crop insect damage using unmanned aerial systems: A machine learning approach. Paper presented at the MODSIM2015, 21st International Congress on Modelling and Simulation. Modelling and Simulation Society of Australia and New Zealand, December 2015, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia.Google Scholar
  82. Purdy, R. (2011). Attitudes of UK and Australian farmers towards monitoring activity with satellite technologies: Lessons to be learnt. Space Policy,27(4), 202–212. Scholar
  83. Queensland Food Future. (2018). A true story. Accessed 28 April 2018.
  84. Queensland University of Technology. (2018). New high-tech drones target Australian vineyards to help stop pests and diseases. Australian Science Media Centre. Accessed 26 April 2018.
  85. Rachels, J. (1975). Why privacy is important. Philosophy & Public Affairs,4(4), 323–333.Google Scholar
  86. Rainwater-Lovett, K., Pacheco, J. M., Packer, C., & Rodriguez, L. L. (2009). Detection of foot-and-mouth disease virus infected cattle using infrared thermography. The Veterinary Journal,180(3), 317–324.Google Scholar
  87. Rawls, J. (1971/1999). A theory of justice. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  88. Rubenfeld, J. (1989). The right of privacy. Harvard Law Review,102, 737–807.Google Scholar
  89. Russo, J. E., Schoemaker, P. J., & Russo, E. J. (1989). Decision traps: Ten barriers to brilliant decision-making and how to overcome them. New York: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  90. Sandbrook, C. (2015). The social implications of using drones for biodiversity conservation. Ambio,44(4), 636–647. Scholar
  91. Sandino, J., Pegg, G., Gonzalez, F., & Smith, G. (2018). Aerial mapping of forests affected by pathogens using UAVs, Hyperspectral sensors, and artificial intelligence. Sensors,18(4), 944. Scholar
  92. Santoni de Sio, F., & Van den Hoven, J. (2018). Meaningful human control over autonomous systems: A philosophical account. Frontiers in Robotics and AI,5, 15.Google Scholar
  93. Scanlon, T. (1975). Thomson on privacy. Philosophy & Public Affairs,4, 315–322.Google Scholar
  94. Schoemaker, P. J. H. (1991). When and how to use scenario planning: A heuristic approach with illustration. Journal of forecasting,10(6), 549–564.Google Scholar
  95. Schoemaker, P. J. H. (1995). Scenario planning: A tool for strategic thinking. Sloan Management Review,36(2), 25–41.Google Scholar
  96. Secretariat of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC). (2016). Guidelines on surveillance. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  97. Select Committee on Landowner Protection from Unauthorised Filming or Surveillance. (2018). ‘Landowner protection from unauthorised filming or surveillance’ News South Wales Parliament Legislative Council. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  98. Simpson, M., & Srinivasan, V. (2014). ‘Australia’s biosecurity future: Preparing for future biological challenges’ Biosecurity. CSIRO: CSIRO. Available at: Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  99. Smee, B. (2019, 2 May). AgForce deletes decade’s worth of data from government-funded barrier reef program. The Guardian. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  100. Sonka, S. (2016). Big data: Fueling the next evolution of agricultural innovation. Journal of Innovation Management,4(1), 114–136.Google Scholar
  101. Sparrow, R. (2009). Building a better WarBot: Ethical issues in the design of unmanned systems for military applications. Science and Engineering Ethics,15(2), 169–187.Google Scholar
  102. Steiner, H. (1996). An essay on rights. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  103. Strange, R. N., & Scott, P. R. (2005). Plant disease: A threat to global food security. Annual review of Phytopathology,43, 83–116.Google Scholar
  104. Teece, D., Peteraf, M., & Leih, S. (2016). Dynamic capabilities and organizational agility: Risk, uncertainty, and strategy in the innovation economy. California Management Review,58(4), 13–35.Google Scholar
  105. The Economist. (2018). Queensland is one of the world’s worst places for deforestation. The Economist, 426(9080). Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  106. Thomson, J. J. (1975). The right to privacy. Philosophy & Public Affairs,4(4), 295–314.Google Scholar
  107. Thomson, J. J. (1990). The realm of rights. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  108. Uniform Law Commission. (2019). Tort Law Relating to Drones Committee. Accessed 5 March 2019.
  109. United Nations. (2007). United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  110. United Nations Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights opened for signature 16 December 1966 993 UNTS 3 (entered into force 3 January 1976) art 11., ‘International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’. Available at:
  111. United Nations General Assembly ‘International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ United Nations. Opened for signature 16 December 1966 General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) entered into force 23 March 1976 art 49. Available at:
  112. van den Hoven, J. (2013). Value sensitive design and responsible innovation. In R. Owen, J. Bessant, & M. Heintz (Eds.), Responsible innovation (pp. 75–83). Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  113. Warren, S. D., & Brandeis, L. D. (1890). The right to privacy. Harvard Law Review,4, 193–220.Google Scholar
  114. Whynne, B., & Shapiro, G. (2018, October 25). The biggest threat to drone innovation is a group you’ve never heard of. TechCrunch. Retrieved from Accessed 14 Feb 2019.
  115. Wiseman, L., Cockburn, T., & Sanderson, J. (2018). Legal consequences of autonomous farming. Farm Policy Journal,15(2), 37–46.Google Scholar
  116. Wolfert, S., Ge, L., Verdouw, C., & Bogaardt, M. J. (2017). Big data in smart farming—A review. Agricultural Systems,153, 69–80.Google Scholar
  117. World Organisation for Animal Health. (2018). Accessed 30 April 2018.
  118. World Trade Organisation. (2018). The WTO agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS Agreement). Accessed 30 April 2018.
  119. Yiridoe, E. K. (2000). Risk of public disclosure in environmental farm plan programs: Characteristics and mitigating legal and policy strategies. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics,13(1), 101–120. Scholar
  120. Zhan, J., Thrall, P. H., & Burdon, J. J. (2014). Achieving sustainable plant disease management through evolutionary principles. Trends in Plant Science,19(9), 570–575. Scholar
  121. Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York, USA: PublicAffairs.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Co-innovation Group, School of Information Technology and Electrical EngineeringThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia
  2. 2.Defence Science & Technology GroupFishermans BendAustralia
  3. 3.Institute for Future EnvironmentsQueensland University of Technology (QUT)BrisbaneAustralia
  4. 4.Quantitative Applied Spatial Ecology (QASE) group, School of Earth, Environmental and Biological SciencesQueensland University of Technology (QUT)BrisbaneAustralia
  5. 5.School of Biological SciencesThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

Personalised recommendations