Amid threats of legal action by groups outraged by claims that their location data might eventually find their way into the hands of the American military, Muslim Pro’s developers find themselves at the centre of a global pile-on that has left trust in their product in tatters.
“We understand that many of our users, including our own friends and families, are upset. Our users' trust means everything to us,” Bitsmedia told Salaam Gateway in a statement from Zahariah Jupary, its head of community, and Nik Emir Din, its head of business development and country manager for Malaysia.
What started off as a bid to raise extra monthly revenue to augment its freemium service has been especially damaging for the company behind Muslim Pro, Singapore-based Bitsmedia, because of the well-founded fears of its user base. The start-up was acquired by two private equity firms, Singapore’s CMIA and Malaysia’s Affin Hwang, in 2017.
The crisis might equally have descended on any other of the countless apps that also make money from selling their data to brokers—though their names might not be as headline-worthy as Muslim Pro’s.
HOW DID IT COME TO THIS?
On November 16, global media outlet Vice’s authoritative Motherboard column published an exposé about the practice of data brokerage, highlighting how the sale of apps’ user information to shadowy third-party merchants could place it in the hands of defence agencies.
Under the headline “How the U.S. military buys location data from ordinary apps”, Muslim Pro featured heavily as “one of the apps connected to a wide-ranging supply chain that sends ordinary people's personal data to brokers, contractors and the military”.
There is no doubt the Motherboard story was made to appear sensational. Though it alluded to many other apps, and mentioned a handful of these by name, the story chose to focus on Muslim Pro and another app for Muslims, Muslim Mingle.
It prominently conflated consumer location data use with targeted drone strikes against Muslims, with the caveat "Motherboard does not know of any specific operations in which this type of app-based location data has been used by the U.S. military”.
Outlining the practices of data brokers, the article covered in detail how one of these brokers deals directly with USSOCOM, a military command that oversees special operations activities in the United States. Yet it pointed out that Muslim Pro had provided data to another, unrelated service, X-Mode.
“The Vice report implied that we had sold our users’ data to the U.S. military via a third-party. We are reaffirming today that Muslim Pro has not sold any of our users’ personal data to the U.S. military. This is something we’ve never done before, we are not doing right now and we won’t do in the future,” said the Bitsmedia executives.
“The news that it might have been the case through a third-party provider was a massive shock for our users, and to all of us at Muslim Pro.”
Nevertheless, X-Mode has listed defence contractors Sierra Nevada Corporation and Systems & Technology Research among its “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.
Bitsmedia says it immediately terminated its relationship with X-Mode after the Vice report. It had first signed terms with the data broker four weeks earlier as a new revenue stream. The executives stressed that his company was unaware of any dealings X-Mode might have had with American defence contractors, and said Bitsmedia has since been assured that no data was passed on to these companies.
“In line with common industry practices, and in our efforts to sustain a high-quality freemium service and help businesses enhance their offerings, we have in the past shared anonymised data with a handful of selected technology partners, including X-Mode,” Bitsmedia confirmed.
“Despite our due diligence and thorough checks on them, we were not made aware of any sensitive business dealings, past and present. In our recent interactions, they have confirmed that none of our data was shared with the US-based organisations stated in the media reports.
"Regardless, we have terminated our relationship with all our data partners, including X-Mode, effective immediately and have launched a formal legal investigation with the support of our lawyers to get to the bottom of this issue, so we can receive proper answers to the questions we and our users have.
“We will take further action if we discover that our trust and that of our users have been abused,” the Bitsmedia executives added.
ISSUES WITH DATA AS COMMODITY
Nevertheless, the Motherboard report does raise questions that Muslim Pro and other apps need to answer in far more detail, and should give all technology users pause to wonder who is being given access to their data.
Personal data has quickly become a commodity in the tech industry. According to data strategist Alqami, up to 90% of major enterprises will generate income from data in 2020, with an estimated 20 billion devices collecting data for analysis.
Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy”, refers to data as “the new oil”, saying it has surpassed the world’s previous most valuable commodity.
“In the world I work in, data is definitely a commodity. Companies are now being valued on the data that they have—their consumers’ behaviour; how people act or interact with brands, products and services,” explained Nicholas Kühne, chief executive of Metora Data Science, a Kuala Lumpur consultancy.
Bigger companies like banks, which have masses of data that might not be useful to them, could take their datasets, remove contact and personal details, and then sell them on to allied businesses, such as insurance or automotive companies, that will find value in them.
At the same time, there are many smaller companies, including a huge number of app developers, that cannot monetise the data they have themselves, and turn to brokers “who are picking up gold nuggets,” said Kühne.
“These data brokers are very smart folks. They are picking data up for pennies and selling them for pounds at the moment because there are a lot of companies that don't know the value of what they've got. I would imagine that Muslim Pro has no idea how valuable its data are.”
With a reported 98 million users around the world in a very specific religious subgroup, Muslim Pro would be viewed as a goldmine for anybody wanting its data. Calling on a data broker—especially one based in Washington DC, America’s power and military heart, rather than more typical Silicon Valley—to wrangle so much commercially valuable information hints at the developer’s naïveté.
“With a 100 million users, that's a massive amount of data. That's the kind of data any big-name customer would want. Transparency is key and the companies that trade in their users’ data, but also communicate that they do so, are still able to build trust among their customers,” said Kühne.
When it comes to harvesting information on individuals, data acquired by third-party brokers like X-Mode are small beans compared to what is in the possession of the institutional data-gatherers most connected individuals subscribe to.
Mobile telcos, cable television services and home wifi providers are constantly harvesting data, far more intensively than data brokers, Kühne explained. Chillingly, he said the benevolence of one’s government may be the only thing preventing these data from being passed on to security services and other agencies.
“Nothing is beyond the all-seeing eye of these telecoms companies. They can know your every movement, purchase and even what the messages you type out on your phone say. And all of them are licensed by governments,” he said.
“The government behind their licence could say, ‘let me have whatever information I want, when I need it, or else I'll shut you down.’. Can you tell me any shareholders that would say, 'bugger off' to a government? That's not going to happen,” Kühne added.
In the days since the Motherboard story broke, a prominent Muslim group in America called on users to stop using Muslim Pro and demanded a congressional inquiry on data harvesting by the military.
Legal action has been threatened by incensed groups in different countries against Bitsmedia. Among these, AFP reported that French users of Muslim Pro filed a complaint accusing the company of data protection offences, abuse of trust, endangering other people's lives and even conspiracy to commit murder.
It is not known if this group has pursued the claim and Bitsmedia has declined to comment about any possible legal action.
In Britain, a Muslim couple sent a legal letter threatening action over the alleged misuse of their location data on November 24.
In their letter, Yemeni-born London residents Najah al-Mujahed and Baraa Shiban demanded that Muslim Pro account for its reported failure to protect the data of its users, explain precisely which entities have accessed their location data and take steps to retrieve the data from any entities that received it unlawfully.
The couple are represented by Foxglove, a non-profit legal organisation that specialises in taking on Big Technology. Foxglove’s director, Cori Crider, said the matter could shed light on a vastly under-regulated part of the data market.
“Imagine that your location data has gone to all kinds of potential intermediaries without your consent and knowledge, and then quite frankly on to the Feds. As a user, you should have the right to request deletion and restitution. Is it enough for them simply to say ‘sorry’ and terminate their contract, or should they have to go and get that material back?” Crider told Salaam Gateway on a call from London.
“Muslim Pro may have been naïve in its dealings, but still it isn't the job of an app user to have to unpick the fact that their data are going to go to a host of intermediaries, and potentially on to U.S. special forces.
“I'm not sure it’s a great answer to them to say, ‘Oh well, we didn't realise all these data brokers were profiting off their access to people's data.’ What is it that they thought they were actually doing? And if they didn't care, is that a great answer? I'm not sure it is,” Crider added.
The couple that Crider represents work in diplomacy and international human rights, and regularly travel to sensitive and potentially risky parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They say they are deeply concerned at the apparent misuse of their location information and its transfer to U.S. authorities.
Shiban, who works for human rights group Reprieve, said in a statement: “It’s complicated enough as activists to go about our work when we travel internationally, without feeling like the app we use just to find Mecca and pray is handing access to our whereabouts to shady third parties and, at the end of the chain, the U.S. military.”
Having been one of the flag-bearers of the Islamic app world since it launched in 2010, Muslim Pro now faces a long journey to restore confidence among its users, and has started on this road by apologising and assuring them that it has learnt its lesson.
“We sincerely apologise for the concern that this has caused them and hope that from the decisive actions we have taken, they will choose to remain part of the Muslim Pro community, or return to our app which has been focused on helping Muslims globally practice their faith,” Bitsmedia’s executives told Salaam Gateway.
“The protection and respect of the privacy of our users is Muslim Pro’s utmost priority and we take every effort to deliver this promise,” they added.
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim email@example.com)
*CORRECTIONS: The comments from Bitsmedia were wrongly attributed to the company's CEO, Louis-Bernard Carcouet. They have been corrected to reflect that they came from Zahariah Jupary, its head of community, and Nik Emir Din, its head of business development and country manager for Malaysia.
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