The lack of strong data protection across most of the world, combined with the need for free smartphone apps and services to create some amount of revenue, has often led to private user data being shared with third parties. This time around, several high-profile Android apps have been sending location data to data brokers, which in turn are selling them to defense contractors working for the US military.
According to an investigative report by Vice, the US military is buying the granular movement data of people around the world. Some of the information comes from a company called Babel Street, creator of a product named Locate X. Other data is purchased through a company called X-Mode, which has an SDK that provides revenue to apps in exchange for location data.
The investigation found that many of the apps involved in the data supply chain are for Muslim users. Muslim Pro, an app with over 50 million installs on the Play Store that tells users the direction of Mecca for prayers, contains the X-Mode SDK. Other Android apps with X-Mode include Muslim Mingle (100K+ installs), Accupedo Pedometer (5+ million installs), Screen Stream Mirroring by Mobzapp (10+ million installs), and Global Storms by Kelly Technology (1+ million installs). Some of the apps state that user location data may pass through multiple unknown parties, while others don't mention X-Mode or other SDKs.
Navy Cmdr. Tim Hawkins, a U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson, told Vice in a statement, "Our access to the software is used to support Special Operations Forces mission requirements overseas. We strictly adhere to established procedures and policies for protecting the privacy, civil liberties, constitutional and legal rights of American citizens."
Vice was unable to determine which military missions, if any, the dataset has been used for. However, this practice is nothing new — Locate X was in the news earlier this year due to its partnerships with the Secret Service, US Customs and Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agreements allow military and police groups to obtain location data, most of which can be easily linked to specific individuals, without the use of court warrants.