USDA Searches Web For Clues About Illegal Plants And Animals

It's deploying new search software that more intelligently finds sites that trade in flora and fauna that could harm people or the U.S. ecology.
In an era when viruses and worms regularly compromise IT systems and cost companies millions, it's easy to forget that real-world pests are more dangerous and potentially more damaging. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claims that the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Asian longhorned beetle alone, if left unchecked, could cost the country billions annually, to say nothing of the possible impact of mad-cow disease and other threats to public health and the economy.

The rapid adoption of Internet commerce has complicated matters for the department. Ron Stinner, director of the Nation Science Foundation Center for Integrated Pest Management at North Carolina State University, describes how the agency came to the realization that dogs at points of entry were no longer enough.

"We started looking at whether there were illegal plants or illegal animals and other things being sold online," he says. "And lo and behold, it didn't take long. I don't know whether you remember the mad-cow disease scare in Great Britain. We could find sites in the U.S. that were selling unprocessed British beef. So all of a sudden there was a real reason to do this."

The USDA wanted to develop a new strategy for managing the threats posed by Internet sales of invasive species, says Ian Winborne, APHIS project manager for the pest-management center.

"Currently, the agency manages threats from other areas by doing things like checking cargo as it comes into ports, going to nurseries to see what they're selling, and going to markets to see what kind of animal products, fruits, and vegetables they're selling," he explains. "But until recently, they had no way to manage what was going on online."

APHIS needed a way to crawl the Web; find sites advertising dangerous animals, animal products, and plants; and then organize the results. The agency opted for search software, called Enterprise Search Platform, from Fast Search & Transfer ASA. It's using Fast Search apps in conjunction with its own Internet-based app, which allows USDA agents to manage sites singled out for scrutiny, evaluate them for risk, determine if they violate regulations, and track those cases as field inquiries are made. After two years of development, the project is up and running.

Beyond presenting a price that met the agency's budget and working aggressively to meet the project's needs, Stinner says that Fast Search's software offered a number of features that APHIS was really interested in.

"For example, they can handle different languages," he says. "As this program progresses, we're going to need to look at a number of different languages. One of our biggest problems is meat products from Southeast Asia." It also can search for like terms and variations on a term, "so that we didn't have to think of every single word that meant 'sold' or 'selling' or 'for sale.' "

Unlike hackers who unleash malicious code, Stinner says, people selling illegal animals and plants often do so out of ignorance. He hopes many violators will stop what they're doing once they understand the damage they may be causing. That's been the case with eBay Inc., which Stinner says recently prohibited the sale of federally forbidden plants and animals.

Other government agencies seem to like what they're seeing. APHIS has been working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to determine whether that agency might benefit from Fast Search's software.

And it's not as if APHIS doesn't have enough work of its own. "We just finished a crawl and we got 31,892 URLs returned as a result of our queries," Winborne says. "We anticipate that we're going to have a pretty big load of sites that will be in violation. So even if 10% of those are violators, that's still a lot."

It's nonetheless a pressing issue. "In some of our test crawls, we found that people are selling giant African snails, a very invasive snail species that eats all kinds of different crops and carries a kind of meningitis," Winborne says. "People are selling these to elementary schools or things like that."