The U.S. military has been buying location data gathered from mobile apps that are downloaded millions of times around the world, including several designed to be used by Muslims, according to a new report.
The investigation launched by Motherboard, an online magazine owned by American-Canadian Vice Media group, has found that the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), a branch of the military focused on counterterrorism, was obtaining location data from several companies.
The most popular app among those targeted was a Muslim prayer and Quran app called Muslim Pro, which gives users precise prayer times and shows the direction of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The app has been downloaded over 98 million times worldwide.
Others included a Muslim dating app and an app for following storms, among others, as Anadolu Agency (AA) reported.
Many of the app users involved in the data supply chain are Muslim, which is viewed as a continuation of the decades-old U.S. policy in predominantly in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the SOCOM's spokesperson confirmed the news report, saying the data was bought to assist its overseas operations.
“Our access to the software is used to support Special Operations Forces mission requirements overseas,” U.S. Navy Commander Tim Hawkins was quoted as saying. “We strictly adhere to established procedures and policies for protecting the privacy, civil liberties, constitutional and legal rights of American citizens.”
One of the companies selling location data, X-Mode, said 25 million devices in the United States are tracked monthly, while about 40 million are being traced elsewhere, including the European Union, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region.
The Motherboard investigation claims that users of the Muslim Mingle dating app have been tracked and that the app repeatedly sent exact geolocation coordinates along with the name of the WiFi network to X-Mode.
According to the report, a step-counter app called Accupedo, the weather app Global Storms and CPlus for Craigslist were also involved in selling private information to SOCOM.
U.S. Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard that X-Mode also admitted selling data it collected to other “U.S. military customers," according to Qatar-based Al Jazeera, while the company defended the practice.
“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: counterterrorism, cybersecurity and predicting future COVID-19 hotspots,” X-Mode told Motherboard.