The US military reportedly buys data from mobile applications which boast thousands of Muslim users for the purpose of 'counterterrorism', among other reasons, reported VICE in a detailed exposé
In the 2,800-word report published yesterday, 16 November, VICE singled out Muslim prayer and Quran app Muslim Pro — which has over 98 million downloads worldwide — as one of the US military's biggest location data providers.
The app uses a device's current location to alert Muslim users when to pray and which direction they should face.
The data harvested from Muslim Pro, and other apps with a prominent Middle Eastern userbase, is gained through a company called X-Mode. The company, as well as Locate X, obtain location data directly from apps, then sell that data to contractors — which in this case, is the Pentagon.
US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) bought access to Locate X's service "to assist on overseas special forces operations", wrote VICE's journalist Joseph Cox.
USSOCOM is a special branch under the military that deals with matters concerning counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and special reconnaissance.
Meanwhile, X-Mode's user tracking services were bought by US military linked-companies Sierra Nevada Corporation and Systems & Technology Research.
Sierra Nevada Corporation builds combat aircraft for the US Air Force and provides support in the development of cyber and electronic warfare, while Systems & Technology Research works with the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
While the report did not explicitly mention that Muslims' location data obtained from these companies was utilised in military attacks, it suggested that the Pentagon may have done so in the past
According to VICE, the USSOCOM contract with Locate X and additional reporting is the first evidence that Americans' use of location data has extended from law enforcement to military agencies.
The report highlighted that the US military is infamous for using location data to target drone strikes. And now that the Pentagon has reportedly been found to have purchased Muslims' sensitive data, VICE drew connections that the data may or may not have used in the decades-long war in the Middle East.
"[The war] has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians during its military operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Motherboard does not know of any specific operations in which this type of app-based location data has been used by the US military," wrote VICE, under its tech magazine Motherboard.
Following the publication of VICE's report, Muslim Pro denied in a statement that they are selling users' personal data to the US military.
However, the app company mentioned that they will be terminating working relationships with X-Mode and other data partners.
Other than Muslim Pro, dating apps such as Muslim Mingle, and two other Mingle brand apps targeting Vietnamese and Black users, also sell location data to X-Mode
X-Mode CEO Joshua Anton boasted in a recent interview with CNN that his company tracks 25 million devices inside the US every month, as well as 40 million devices elsewhere in the European Union, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region.
X-Mode told VICE that it tracks users' locations with 400 apps — all of which are embedded with a special code that is traceable for the company.
The company pays app developers USD1,500 (about RM6,150) a month if their apps have 50,000 active daily users.
"X-Mode licenses its data panel to a small number of technology companies that may work with government military services, but our work with such contractors is international and primarily focused on three use cases: counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and predicting future COVID-19 hotspots," the company told VICE.
As VICE worked on the exposé, the Muslim Mingle app as well as another Middle-Eastern dating app — Iran Social — have since included a dialogue box to ask for users' consent before collecting their location data.
While X-Mode has been fairly transparent with the dealing of its businesses and responded to VICE's interviews, the same cannot be said for Locate X.
Babel Street, the parent company that operates Locate X, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Thousands of netizens expressed their disgust at the US military, saying people who use Muslim Pro for its intended purposes are unintentionally upping Islamophobic in the process
"Every advanced country wants to protect its citizens. It's not one app. It's not a handful. If you want to stay off the grid, don't use a computer or cellular phone of any kind," commented a Twitter user.
Meanwhile, many also suggested an alternative to the apps that are susceptible to data harvesting.
For example, a great alternative to Muslim Pro is Waktu Solat. This Malaysian made app under Media Prima retrieves praying information from the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM).
You can download Waktu Solat from Google Play here, Apple's App Store here, and Huawei App Gallery here.