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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

Jan 25, 2021 - Technology

Google says it may have found a privacy-friendly substitute to cookies

Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

Google on Monday said new test results show promising signs that the technology it's hoping will replace cookie-based ad targeting is working.

Why it matters: Google and web browser rivals Apple and Mozilla have all introduced sweeping privacy changes recently that will collectively phase out cookies, an internet tracking tool that tracks users' web browsing history.

Twitter to label COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, implement strike policy

Photo: Illustration by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Twitter announced Monday that it will label tweets with potentially misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines, and introduce a strike system that can lead to permanent account suspension.

The big picture: Tech companies are taking an increasingly aggressive stance against users who attempt to share misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines on their platforms.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: Trump, Melania received COVID vaccine at White House in January — CDC director warns "now is not the time" to lift COVID restrictions.
  2. Vaccine: J&J CEO "absolutely" confident in vaccine distribution goals Most states aren't prioritizing prisons for COVID vaccines — Vaccine hesitancy is shrinking.
  3. Economy: Apple says all U.S. stores open for the first time since start of pandemic — What's really going on with the labor market.
  4. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.
  5. World: Italy tightens restrictions as experts warn of growing prevalence of variants — PA announces new COVID restrictions as cases surge.
  6. Local: Colorado sets timeline for return to normalcy.