NEW YORK, USA: The data from Muslim Pro, a prayer app with over 98 million downloads that reminds users about daily prayers and provides readings from the Holy Quran, helped military contractors to track the location of its users.
The company calls it “the most popular Muslim app”.
The users’ data and location were sold to the US military, a report from Vice’s Motherboard revealed.
Muslim Pro is one of the 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 the third-party data brokers, the report further revealed.
The practice has raised the ire of privacy advocates, but location-data firms and their partners insist that people’s movements are anonymised and not directly tied to their identities. Some studies have shown, however, that it’s easy to de-anonymise the location data and tie it back to individual people.
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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 sold location data to a third-party broker called X-Mode. X-Mode has sold location data to defence contractors, according to its website, which in turn provide the data to the US Department of Defence.
Muslim Pro head of community Zahariah Jupary said that in the wake of the data 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 anonymised.
The app, dubbed as the “most popular Muslim app in the world”, has been downloaded at least 95 million times in 200 countries.
US Senator Ron Wyden said X-Mode was selling location data harvested from phones in the United States to military contractors.
“In a September call with my office, lawyers for the data broker X-Mode Social confirmed that the company is selling data collected from phones in the United States to US military customers, via defence contractors. Citing non-disclosure agreements, the company refused to identify the specific defence contractors or the specific government agencies buying the data,” he said in a statement.
X-Mode said 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 anonymised 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 defence 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.
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.