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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.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
Nov 18, 2020 - Technology

Apple to lower commissions for small businesses on App Store

Screenshot via Apple.com

Apple announced a new program Wednesday under which it will take a smaller 15% cut from App Store sales for businesses earning less than $1 million selling their apps, rather than the standard 30% cut.

Why it matters: Apple is under fire from some critics over its rigid App Store policies that require developers to use Apple payment systems for both app sales and in-app payments in exchange for a cut of sales.

What COVID-19 vaccine trials still need to do

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 vaccines are being developed at record speed, but some experts fear the accelerated regulatory process could interfere with ongoing research about the vaccines.

Why it matters: Even after the first COVID-19 vaccines are deployed, scientific questions will remain about how they are working and how to improve them.

1 hour ago - Podcasts

Faces of COVID creator on telling the stories of those we've lost

America yesterday lost 2,762 people to COVID-19, per the CDC, bringing the total pandemic toll to 272,525. That's more than the population of Des Moines, Iowa. Or Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Or Toledo, Ohio.

Axios Re:Cap speaks with Alex Goldstein, creator of the @FacesofCOVID Twitter account, about sharing the stories behind the statistics.