are required to pray five times a day, facing toward Mecca. In our smartphone era, it was only a matter
of time before someone came up with an app that reminds the Muslim user that it’s
time to pray, and conveniently uses GPS data to direct the user toward Mecca
from anywhere in the world. Muslim Pro
is the most popular app to do these and other helpful things for members of
Islam, and has been downloaded some 98 million times.
When a person
downloads an app that is advertised to do a certain function, the question of what
else it might be doing in the background rarely arises. If the app is free, most people are aware at
some level that the developer must make money somehow, typically through
advertising. But rarely does the typical
user even read the boilerplate that sometimes appears during installation,
because it would take a lawyer to figure out what it means, and all the
relevant information might not even show up in the user agreement. So there is an implied agreement or
good-faith assumption on the part of the user, that the app developer won’t do
anything with the user’s data that the user would object to.
Users of Muslm Pro
received a shock last month when the Motherboard column of the website Vice
revealed that through a third-party vendor, Muslim Pro had sold location data
on its users to contractors for the U. S. military. True, the data was “anonymized,”
meaning that names and other explicit identifying information was stripped from
the data before it was sold. But if a
contractor obtains data from several different anonymized sources, it is often
a fairly straightforward matter to “de-anonymize” the data and
identify specific individuals. If an
anonymous individual spends a lot of time at a particular street address that
can be associated independently with a particular name, so much for
Although no one
has traced any specific military actions to the use of Muslim Pro data, users
of the app have every right to feel betrayed.
Muslims aren’t the only religious group using faith-related apps. Just to pick a random example, the Catholic
radio network Relevant Radio has developed an app that assists users in saying
the Rosary and pursuing other devotional practices. Imagine how users of that app in a
Christian-hostile country would feel if they discovered that the network was
selling location data gleaned from the app to representatives of the country
that was persecuting them. Betrayal is a
revealed the practice, Muslim Pro announced that it was cutting off its association
with X-Mode, the company that was buying location data from Muslim Pro and
other apps and selling it to contractors who specialize in providing
intelligence data to the U. S. military.
For its part, X-Mode encourages developers who provide data to insert
warning phrases in their user agreements.
Even if such verbiage was provided by each of the 400 or so apps that
X-Mode obtains data from, it is unlikely that most users would even read it.
I will admit that
the first time I heard of a special watch that informed the wearer of the
correct direction to pray toward Mecca, it struck me as incongruous, to say the
least. Here was a practice of a 1400-year-old
faith being aided by up-to-date technology.
But religion is an important part of the lives of billions of people,
and as technology advances and provides conveniences and assistance for every
part of life, it’s understandable that religious practices would take advantage
of it too.
Pro-X-Mode revelation is a good example of how compartmentalizing is encouraged
by the way large-scale technical systems work.
Most religions deal with the whole person, one at a time. This is the opposite tendency of the way a
company like X-Mode operates: stripping
identifying information from bits of location data and selling it wholesale to
similar organizations that deal in dehumanized blocks of information, which however
can be easily reversed to reveal the location of any particular
individual. Those who handle the data
along the way—the programmers and managers and salesmen—easily forget that the
only reason their data is valuable is because it pertains to human beings. They would rather think about correlations
and data quality and other mathematical measures, than to consider that just
possibly, one of the bits of data they sell may be used to end the life of a
I am not a
pacifist, and I realize that war is sometimes the least bad alternative in
certain situations. But historically,
one of the most common practices a warring nation will adopt against a rival
nation is to convince its own people that the rivals are not really human, but
are something less than human—animals, maybe, or even just numbers in a census
record somewhere. In anonymizing the
location data Muslim Pro collected, X-Mode unwittingly carried out that first
step in making it easier for someone else to treat human beings as less than
human. What looked like a good
thing—removing personal identifying data—turned out to be the first step in a
process that wound up as a betrayal.
technology is an unavoidable part of our lives now, and can be the source or
driving force behind many benefits.
Without computers and anonymized testing, we would not be looking
forward to getting vaccines for COVID-19 within a year of the virus’s spread to
humans. But those who use data derived
from humans must never forget the humans behind the data, and everyone working
in such fields needs to exercise their moral imaginations enough to ask,
“Supposing I was a user, are we doing anything that I’d object
to?” And if the answer is yes,
don’t just shrug and go on about your business.
Sources: The original
report on X-Mode’s use of Muslim Pro location data was “How the U. S.
Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps” by Joseph Cox, which
appeared on the Vice website on Nov. 16, 2020 at https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x. Articles derived from this source appeared in
many locations including the Austin American-Statesman, where I first
learned of it.