Muslim Pro Highlights the Need for New Data Privacy Law

Have you ever downloaded an innocuous app to your phone, like Kik or Snapseed, and wondered why it requested access to your location? Of course you have – it seems every app across our connected devices wants to know where we are. Not even apps like Muslim Pro, which reminds users when and in what direction to pray, are safe. The only difference between Kik or Snapseed and Muslim Pro is that the military is far less interested in your location when you’re messaging a friend or editing a selfie.

recent investigation by Motherboard revealed that Muslim Pro, which has been downloaded nearly 100 million times, has been indirectly selling detailed location data on Muslims around the world to the U.S. Army.. A spokesperson for the U.S. Special Operations Command said the information was used to support their overseas operations. There’s no way of knowing whether the location data of Muslim Pro users inside the United States was accessed, but it’s easy to make an informed guess.

In the post-9/11 era, perhaps it’s not surprising that the military is engaging in this kind of behavior. This latest revelation, that not even prayer apps are secure, should be exactly the wake-up call lawmakers need to begin reeling in harmful data collection practices. Not only would this help correct past injustices against American Muslims, but it would also lead to a more secure future for all Americans.

Leaders from both parties have already signaled interest in tackling this deeply rooted problem. In 2019, Senate Democrats laid out a framework to keep corporations from misusing consumer data. Sen.Ron Wyden also wrote legislation that would bar law enforcement from purchasing location data without a warrant. And two months ago, Senate Republicans introduced the SAFE DATA Act to provide Americans with more control over how their personal information is collected. These are all important steps, but overlook one of the biggest threats to data privacy, the booming business of “smart” cities.

Right now, for example, transportation agencies in more than two dozen cities, including Washington, D.C., are working with the giants of Silicon Valley to implement a massive data collection program masquerading as a tool to enforce traffic regulations. While not as glaringly invasive as the Muslim Pro case, it could be far more dangerous.

The program, called Mobility Data Specification, requires mobility companies to provide city governments with real-time location data on their vehicles, including the starting point, ending point and route of each trip taken. It’s currently being tested on dockless scooters, with plans to expand to ridesharing next.  The data collected through MDS makes it easy for those with access to it to identify and track riders based on where they’ve been – a home, an office, a mosque or elsewhere. In addition to being a clear violation of basic privacy rights, MDS is ripe for abuse. Cities haven’t set clear limits on how trip data will be used or shared, particularly with law enforcement, making communities already subject to oversurveillance even more vulnerable.