Islamic Lifestyle

U.S. group wants Congress to investigate military buying Muslims’ prayer data

America’s largest Muslim civil rights group has called for a congressional inquiry to explore claims that the United States military has been buying user information from Islamic apps and potentially using these data to track the movement of Muslims around the world.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) demanded the investigation a day after an exposé published by Vice on November 16 reported that personal data are being harvested from popular Muslim applications and others by brokers and sold on to the military and clients including defence contractors with close links to the U.S. armed forces.

These data could feasibly allow the military to identify the geographical location and movements of app users, which CAIR called the “warrantless government surveillance of American Muslims”.

“When this came to our knowledge, we immediately asked for a congressional inquiry to look deep into it and to ensure that the government agency or any other player does not misuse data or have illegal access that violates the trust and privacy of users,” CAIR chief executive Nihad Awad told Salaam Gateway by phone from Washington.

“We call on Congress to begin a public inquiry into the government’s use of personal data to target the Muslim community here and abroad, including whether these data were used to illegally spy on or target Muslim Americans.”

Singapore-based prayer platform Muslim Pro, with an estimated 98 million users worldwide, and dating app Muslim Mingle were among the apps named in the Vice report.

Both of these were said to have been selling their users’ location data to third-party broker X-Mode, which has listed Sierra Nevada Corporation and Systems & Technology Research as “trusted partners” on its website.

The former supports “integrated cyber and electronic warfare capabilities for” the U.S. Army, while the latter “specialises in advanced research and development for defence, intelligence and homeland security applications”.

X-Mode is yet to answer Salaam Gateway’s request for comment.

In a statement sent to Salaam Gateway on Tuesday (Nov 16) before it was widely distributed to other media, Erwan Macé, founder and former chief executive of Bitsmedia, Muslim Pro’s developer, said the company would “immediately terminate the relationship with X-Mode—and any other data partner”.

He said the relationship with the data broker had lasted four weeks.

“Since we were made aware of the situation, we have launched an internal investigation and are reviewing our data governance policy to confirm that all user data were handled in line with all existing requirements,” Mace added.

In the meantime, CAIR has urged Muslims to stop using Muslim Pro and other targeted applications until their owners “offer full transparency and pledge to end government use of user data”. For its part, the council will petition Congress to “pursue this matter until we get to the answer,” Awad said.

“The military having access to a database of Muslims is of major concern to us. Associating our constitutionally protected religious right to prayer with national security is a slap on the face for our claim as a nation that we protect religious freedom. We want assurance now from Congress that associating our faith with national security issues will come to an end,” he added. 

“I'm sure the government is trying to assure people on a domestic level that they don't violate the privacy of U.S. citizens or residents. But that is not very true, because we know that government agencies including the NSA have broken the law by spying on American citizens at home and abroad, and violated their constitutional rights including through the FISA court.”

By this, he refers to actions taken by  the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the issue of surveillance warrants. The ex parte court has been criticised for its opacity and willingness to “rubber-stamp” surveillance requests, as Awad puts it. Based on an analysis of official figures, just 80 out of 39,541 surveillance order requests between 1979 and 2017 were turned down by the court.

“This is why we're asking Congress to respond to [the military’s alleged data purchasing] and take action to ensure that government agencies do not violate the law and the privacy of citizens, especially at home in the United States,” said Awad.

“Unfortunately, we know that some of these agencies in foreign countries may use some of these data to further their strategic and military purposes. We have reasons to be considering that the access and misuse of these data is a red-flag.”

In a statement provided to Vice, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOC), a branch of the military responsible for “counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and special reconnaissance” confirmed it had obtained access to the movement data of Muslims using apps to assist on overseas special forces operations. 

“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,” said Navy Commander Tim Hawkins in the statement.  

It should be noted, however, that the data stream provided by Muslim Pro did not go directly to USSOC, which purchases user data from another broker, Locate X. Nevertheless, the data-harvesting model used by both streams is comparable.

For now, CAIR is putting its faith in congress to shed light on the matter.

“Congress is good when it comes to this thing, because the privacy of citizens should be of the utmost priority, as should be protecting the religious freedom of American users and making sure that our government does not cross the line in secrecy,” said Awad.

“We're going to pursue this along with our allies in the civil society. I assure you, we have a lot of support amongst members of Congress who will not tolerate this. We're hopeful that we're going to get to the bottom of this.”

Singapore-based Bitsmedia launched Muslim Pro in 2010. The start-up was acquired by two private equity firms, Singapore–based CMIA and Malaysia’s Affin Hwang, in 2017.

(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim

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