The US military has been buying location data of millions of Muslims around the world from several popular and innocuous apps such as MuslimPro and Quran app, according to a report in Vice's Motherboard. Muslim Pro is a prayer app with more than 98 million downloads and reminds users about daily prayers and provides readings from the Quran.
It also tracks user data location and sell those locations to brokers, which is one of its major sources of making money. The US military is one of the many buyers of such data. Other similar apps include a Muslim dating app, a popular Craigslist app, an app for following storms, and a "level" app that can be used to help, for example, install shelves in a bedroom.
The website reported that the US military used two different methods to gather the location data of the users. One of the methods was by collecting data through a broker named Babel Street. This involves a product called Locate X. The access to Locate X in order to assist an on overseas special forces operations, was bought by Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a branch of the military tasked with counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and special reconnaissance.
The second method to obtain data involved reliance on a company called X-Mode. This company obtains location data of users directly from apps and then sells them to contractors, and by extension, to the US military. The Motherboard report says that Muslim Pro sends user data to X-Mode.
Motherboard spoke to a few other app developers also but they were not aware who their users' location data ends up with.
Although Motherboard in its report didn't mention the magnitude of the risk involved in adopting such methods of data mining, it mentioned that many of the app users whose data was mined were Muslims, and comes at a time when US warfare continues in Muslim-majority countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
The report is also an example of how government agencies can go to private data brokers to collect granular location of users, including US citizens. This has also seen lawmakers calling for more regulations on gathering data of ordinary people.
Moreover, this once again highlights how the data location industry has played a major role in helping the US military to use location data to target drone strikes on several countries. The Pentagon has previously used smartphone location data in order to plan and execute military operations. The However, Motherboard does not know of any specific operations in which this type of app-based location data has been used by the US military.
According to public records, USSOCOM purchased the "additional software licenses" for Locate X and another product focused on text analysis called Babel X in April. The bundle of additional licenses cost around $90,600, the records reveal.
According to a report in Vice, Navy Commander Tim Hawkins, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson, in a statement, confirmed the Locate X purchase, and said: "Our access to the software is used 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."