ACLU files lawsuit over data US collected via Muslim app used by millions | US news

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking the release of three years of records that could shed light on how the US government acquired cell phone location data collected through apps used by millions of Muslims around the world.

The Freedom of Information Act Request, filed Thursday by the ACLU and CUNY Law School’s Clear clinic, follows an investigation published last month in Motherboard that revealed tech companies, including the one connected to the Muslim Pro app, sold personal location data of its users to the US military and defense contractors. The Muslim Pro app has been downloaded by close to 100 million people and is used to aid Muslims in planning prayer, finding local halal food and fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. Data collected from a Muslim dating app, a Craigslist app, and an app used for tracking storms was also sold to US agencies.

“The harvesting of data on Muslim app users worldwide is a serious threat to privacy and religious freedom,” the ACLU said on Twitter Thursday morning, adding that the records it is seeking would help answer questions that could help prevent this kind of data harvesting in the future. “This is yet another betrayal of trust for communities who have long been subjected to intrusive, often unconstitutional surveillance by governments in the United States,” the organization added.

In the official request, filed against 10 federal agencies including each branch of the US military, the Department of Justice, the DEA, CIA and FBI, the organizations allege that the data sales discriminates against Muslims and violates the fourth amendments, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The document also sites a 2018 supreme court ruling that specifically bars law enforcement agencies from obtaining this kind of data without a search warrant.

“These developments raise serious concerns about the scope of the Agencies’ purchases, the Agencies’ discriminatory focus on Muslims, and the warrantless acquisition and use of location information from people inside the United States,” they write in the request. The records request is just the first step and could lead to separate litigation, the ACLU said.

Motherboard’s exposé was the first detailed report on how the US military purchases the location data, according to the FOIA, and it revealed two separate streams used by federal agencies to access the data: a company called Babel Street and its product, “Locate X,” and a location data firm called X-Mode, which pays apps to siphon location data that it can then sell.

Locate X is a powerful tool that can track the movement of cell phones. It enables investigators to hone in on a specific area, identify mobile devices in the area, and watch where those devices go. The data can go back months, and though the tracking is anonymized, a Babel Street employee told Motherboard the information could easily be de-anonymized.

United States Special Operations Command bought access to Locate X, according to the Motherboard report, for roughly $90,600. “Our access to the software is used to support Special Operations Forces mission requirements overseas,” Navy Cmdr Tim Hawkins, a US Special Operations Command spokesperson said in a statement included with the story, adding, “we strictly adhere to established procedures and policies for protecting the privacy, civil liberties, constitutional and legal rights of American citizens.” Other agencies, including the US Customs and Border Protection and the Secret Service have also purchased access, according to a separate report about the tech tool published by Protocol in March.

X-Mode uses a different approach. It works by paying apps to include code that skims location data that can then be sold. The company’s CEO told reporters that X-Mode tracks roughly 25 million devices in the US each month and an additional 40 million around the world. It’s embedded in roughly 400 apps, often without the end-users’ knowledge.

The data collected is sold to a variety of different clients, including, Motherboard reported, a private intelligence firm “whose goal is to use location data to track people down to their ‘doorstep’” and US military contractors.

Muslim Pro, the widely used prayer app, stopped sharing data with X-Mode after the story broke, but the report showcased the shadowy networks that collect and distribute data and how it can end up being used by agencies without a direct connection to the apps themselves. It’s also prompted immediate pushback.

Majlis Ash-Shura, the Islamic Leadership Council of New York that represents 90 mosques in the state urged its members to delete the Muslim Pro app, according to the Los Angeles Times, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent letters to US House committee chairs demanding an investigation into the data sale and called for legislation that would prohibit US government agencies from purchasing the personal data.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has also promised an investigation into how the US Department of Homeland Security has utilized the warrantless collection of phone location data. “Despite what shady data brokers believe, the 4th amendment isn’t for sale,” he tweeted on 25 November, along with a Wall Street Journal article reporting that a majority of Americans are worried about the government tracking them. “The American people are paying attention, and they’re sick and tired of government overreach into their personal information.”


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