Have you ever downloaded an innocuous app to your phone, like Kik or Snapseed, and wondered why it requested access to your location? Of course you have – it seems every app across our connected devices wants to know where we are. Not even apps like Muslim Pro, which reminds users when and in what direction to pray, are safe. The only difference between Kik or Snapseed and Muslim Pro is that the military is far less interested in your location when you’re messaging a friend or editing a selfie.
A recent investigation by Motherboard revealed that Muslim Pro, which has been downloaded nearly 100 million times, has been indirectly selling detailed location data on Muslims around the world to the U.S. Army.. A spokesperson for the U.S. Special Operations Command said the information was used to support their overseas operations. There’s no way of knowing whether the location data of Muslim Pro users inside the United States was accessed, but it’s easy to make an informed guess.
In the post-9/11 era, perhaps it’s not surprising that the military is engaging in this kind of behavior. This latest revelation, that not even prayer apps are secure, should be exactly the wake-up call lawmakers need to begin reeling in harmful data collection practices. Not only would this help correct past injustices against American Muslims, but it would also lead to a more secure future for all Americans.
Leaders from both parties have already signaled interest in tackling this deeply rooted problem. In 2019, Senate Democrats laid out a framework to keep corporations from misusing consumer data. Sen.Ron Wyden also wrote legislation that would bar law enforcement from purchasing location data without a warrant. And two months ago, Senate Republicans introduced the SAFE DATA Act to provide Americans with more control over how their personal information is collected. These are all important steps, but overlook one of the biggest threats to data privacy, the booming business of “smart” cities.
Right now, for example, transportation agencies in more than two dozen cities, including Washington, D.C., are working with the giants of Silicon Valley to implement a massive data collection program masquerading as a tool to enforce traffic regulations. While not as glaringly invasive as the Muslim Pro case, it could be far more dangerous.
The program, called Mobility Data Specification, requires mobility companies to provide city governments with real-time location data on their vehicles, including the starting point, ending point and route of each trip taken. It’s currently being tested on dockless scooters, with plans to expand to ridesharing next. The data collected through MDS makes it easy for those with access to it to identify and track riders based on where they’ve been – a home, an office, a mosque or elsewhere. In addition to being a clear violation of basic privacy rights, MDS is ripe for abuse. Cities haven’t set clear limits on how trip data will be used or shared, particularly with law enforcement, making communities already subject to oversurveillance even more vulnerable.
Absent strong protections, real-time tracking of individual vehicles would be a looming specter to American Muslims. Trips to and from daily prayer could be tracked under the guise of counter-terrorism. Even one instance of this would cause an undue mental burden on our Muslim neighbors, who already fear government surveillance and its associated injustices. This fear could extend to Black and immigrant communities as well, who are all too familiar with oversurveillance justified by gang task forces and federal immigration policies.
If that’s not concerning simply because it wouldn’t affect you, then consider the consequences of a hacker’s accessing MDS data in a city home to the most powerful people in the world. As the District Department of Transportation moves toward implementing MDS, government officials, reporters and others who regularly take ridesharing trips could fall under its gaze. The sensitive information that can be revealed from individual trip data – meeting locations, relationships, sources and more – especially when it belongs to those with political influence, would be a prime target for bad actors.
Despite considerable pushback from the ACLU and local groups, officials have been largely unresponsive to these serious concerns. That’s why it’s incumbent upon the federal government, under the new administration, to prioritize a comprehensive data privacy bill that accounts for known abuses like Muslim Pro and the emerging threat of smart cities. As President-elect Joe Biden and members of Congress chart a new course for our country, no stone can be left unturned when it comes to correcting past injustices and safeguarding the futures of our most vulnerable communities.
Adam Beddawi is a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, D.C.
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