- The US military purchases location data mined from seemingly ordinary smartphone apps, public procurement records show.
- One source of location data bought by the military is Muslim Pro, a prayer app with more than 98 million downloads worldwide, according to a new report from Vice's Motherboard.
- Apps like Muslim Pro — as well as other apps for exercise, weather tracking, and browsing Craigslist — sell people's location data to third-party brokers, which in turn sell the data to clients like the US military and military contractors.
- In past years, the US has used location data harvested from smartphones to plan and carry out drone strikes.
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It also tracks users' location and sells that location data to brokers — and the US military is one of the buyers, according to a new report from Vice's Motherboard.Muslim Pro is one of hundreds of smartphone apps that make money by selling users' location data to third-party brokers. (The US military bought Muslim Pro's data through one of those third-party data brokers, according to Motherboard.)
The practice has raised the ire of privacy advocates, but location-data firms and their partners insist that people's movements are anonymized and not directly tied to their identities. Some studies have shown, however, that it's easy to de-anonymize the location data and tie it back to individual people.The new report is the latest illustration of how government agencies can go to private data brokers to collect granular information on individuals' movements, including US citizens. Some lawmakers have called for the practice to be more heavily regulated after it was revealed that the Department of Homeland Security bought location data to track down people suspected of immigrating to the US illegally.
Muslim Pro sells location data to a third-party broker called X-Mode, according to Motherboard's report. X-Mode has sold location data to defense contractors, according to its website, which in turn provide the data to the US Department of Defense.In a statement to Business Insider, Muslim Pro head of community Zahariah Jupary said that in the wake of the Motherboard story the app is "immediately terminating" its contract with X-Mode and other data partners, adding that the location data provided to data partners was anonymized.
The app has been downloaded over 50 million times on Android, according to the Google Play Store , and over 98 million in total across other platforms including iOS, according to Muslim Pro's website .The news highlights the opaque location data industry and the fact that the U.S. military, which has infamously used other location data to target drone strikes , is purchasing access to sensitive data.
"Since we were made aware of the situation, we have launched an internal investigation and are reviewing our data governance policy to confirm that all user data was handled in line with all existing requirements," Jupary said. "We will continue to take all necessary measures to ensure that our users practice their faith with peace of mind, which remains Muslim Pro's sole mission since its creation." A representative for X-Mode did not immediately respond to Business Insider's requests for comment.
X-Mode told Motherboard that its business with military contractors was "primarily focused on three use cases: counter-terrorism, cybersecurity and predicting future COVID-19 hotspots." X-Mode has previously published anonymized location data from people's smartphones to show people's movements to and from areas where COVID-19 is spiking.In other instances, the US military has bought location data directly from brokers rather than going through defense contractors. According to public procurement records, the US Special Operations Command spent $90,656 in April to access location data provided by the firm Babel Street, which mines data from smartphone apps.Navy Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a US Special Operations Command spokesman, said in a statement to Business Insider that the command bought the data from Babel Street "to support Special Operations Forces mission requirements overseas."
"We strictly adhere to established procedures and policies for protecting the privacy, civil liberties, constitutional and legal rights of American citizens," Hawkins said.A representative for Babel Street did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Babel Street sells a product called Locate X that allows people to select an area on a map and shows the movements of devices inside that area, according to Motherboard. Clients can perform as many search queries as they want after paying to access the data, according to a Babel Street marketing document.The purchases are noteworthy because the Pentagon has used smartphone location data to plan and execute military operations. The National Security Agency used a different type of location data gleaned from phones' SIM cards to carry out drone strikes against suspected Taliban members, The Intercept reported in 2014. It remains unclear whether location data purchased through third-party brokers has directly informed specific US military operations.