Nov 18, 2020 - Politics & Policy

U.S. military buys app tracking data from private services

Photo of masked U.S. soldiers in their uniforms standing in formation

Photo: Spencer Platt via Getty

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is quietly purchasing access to vast troves of real-time location and user data from commercial apps that focus on everything from dating services for Muslims to weather reports, according to a new Vice investigation.

Why it matters: Though legal, the purchase of these data tracking services by the U.S. military raises serious civil liberties and privacy questions — as well as questions about just how the military is employing this data.

Details: The military has obtained these data troves through the companies Babel Street and X-Mode, which provide data-tracking services that collect information harvested by apps.

  • This is the first known instance of these types of services being used by the U.S. military, though American law enforcement agencies have purchased similar data streams in the past.

Between the lines: Many of the data streams included in the services purchased by SOCOM are from apps catering to largely Muslim audiences, reports Vice. A popular Muslim dating app and prayer app, as well as apps focusing on Iran, Egypt and Turkey, are included in the tracking data, writes Vice.

  • The focus on apps for Muslim audiences “is notable considering that the United States has waged a decades-long war on predominantly Muslim terror groups in the Middle East,” reports Vice. SOCOM is responsible for many leading-edge U.S. counterterrorism operations worldwide.
  • Prayer app Muslim Pro “reminds users when to pray and what direction Mecca is in relation to the user's current location.” The app has been downloaded more than 98 million times worldwide.

What they’re saying: A spokesperson for SOCOM confirmed to Vice that it had purchased these data services, though said that it was only using the information in service of its operations abroad.

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