The U.S. military purchased app data on hundreds of thousands of people to track their location, according to a newly-released report from Motherboard. Notably, the purchased apps include a Muslim prayer application and others designed to appeal to Muslims.
The report explains that there were two separate companies that the military, including U.S. Special Operations Command used to acquire the sensitive user geolocation data. The first company, Babel Street, dealt in personal user app data via their app Locate X. Locate X was in the news earlier this year when it was revealed that Babel Street had sold access to it to government officials, including police and the FBI.
The second company that military intelligence utilized to access user data was an intermediary called X-Mode which gets geolocation data sent directly from apps then sells that data to contractors, and by extension, to the U.S. military. X-Mode offers app developers pre-built bundles of code that tracks users’ location data, and then transmit that data back to X-Mode. Essentially app developers were encouraged to include the location tracker by X-Mode into their code, and in exchange X-Mode would reward the developers monetarily based on the number of users the app has per day.
The U.S. government’s intelligence services are constantly searching for ways to curtail basic civil liberties. When warrants and the judicial system are too slow, the government can instead go directly to the app creators themselves and buy the data they are looking for..
One of the main apps that X-Mode was tracking is a Muslim prayer app called MuslimPro, a very popular download with 98 million users. Sameena Rahman, a Muslim-American organizer based in Los Angeles, told Liberation, “This is an incredible breach of trust for the American Muslim community to exploit an app that provides a spiritual service, like providing prayer times and online Quran to be selling granular data to the U.S. military — The very institution that served an integral role in the destruction of Muslim-majority countries across the world.”
Promoting hatred against Muslims is an essential strategy of U.S. empire. To sell a significant section of the population on the supposed need for endless war and occupation across the Middle East, especially since the so-called war on terror began, Muslim communities have been portrayed in the media and by politicians as dangerous threats to “national security”. Mass surveillance of Muslim communities in the United States is both a product and a cause of this non-stop campaign of demonization.
In the absence of laws that protect users’ digital privacy, app companies are happy to profit off the sale of users’ private information. These private enterprises are incentivized to help extend the reach of law enforcement deeper and deeper into our private lives. This is an issue that impacts us all, but particularly those communities who are already most vulnerable to surveillance and repression.