The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.
This week, in an all-new episode of “get your private information stolen by a tech giant”, was Muslim Pro’s scandal of indirectly selling user data to the US military intelligence and counterterrorism unit.
Muslim Pro is a comprehensive religious app, boasting about 100 million downloads across 216 countries, dubbing itself as the “most popular Muslim app” on its website. It features religious content, ranging from the direction of Mecca which Muslims pray facing, to audio versions of the Quran. So how did a seemingly innocent app, aiming to reinforce Islamic values, become a pawn of state surveillance?
According to a riveting expose published by Vice, Muslim Pro seems to have allegedly handed off sensitive location data to a third-party data broker, X-Mode. Such brokers typically auction off data to contractors, who in turn sell it to buyers. And apparently, the buyers could also be the US military.
How did a seemingly innocent app, aiming to reinforce Islamic values, become a pawn of state surveillance?
Due to non-disclosure agreements at play, X-Mode refused to identify the specific contractors they were disseminating information to. But they did confirm that the international contractors are focused on three types of cases: counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and predicting future COVID-19 hotspots. In a recent interview with CNN, the company’s CEO Joshua Anton revealed that the company tracks 25 million devices inside the United States every month, and 40 million elsewhere, including in the European Union, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific region.
However, just a day after the fiasco unfolded on social media, with many angry users expressing their apprehension, Muslim Pro’s team sent out a press release on Twitter clarifying that the “media reports circulating” were “incorrect and untrue”. In the same statement published, they also claimed that they have “terminated relationships with all data partners” especially their four-week-long liaison with X-Mode.
In their defense, Muslim Pro also clarified that “every single feature of the app is available without signing up or logging in” which contributed to the “anonymity”. And the greatest selling point, of course, is that it is free.
But remember: “if you’re not paying for a product online, you are the product.” These words from the 2020 Netflix documentary, The Social Network, could not be truer in the case at hand. Our naïve illusion of a tech ecosystem where we are the willful consumers, and the app or the network is the product needs to be shattered. Many skeptics have long pointed out that users and our experiences are actually the product of these apps. The consumer or buyer for this “product”, you might wonder? Giant corporations and state organizations.
Harvard Professor Zuboff, who coined the term “surveillance capitalism”, suggests that our private information is far more derogatory than a product: it is simply the raw material or the input for a future product. And this commodification of human experiences, feelings, emotions, and desires is conveniently euphemized as “data” to cushion the blow on the terms and agreements page. An average layman, with little tech literacy, is overwhelmed by such legal jargon and cannot be fully cognizant of the repercussions of letting their data be accessed. So we all become victims of this so-called “transparent agreement”.
An interesting tweet in response to the issue stated: “True, apps have long been selling users’ data to third parties since the discovery of smartphones. However, in Muslim Pro’s case, which is patronized by millions of the very people who are most vulnerable to be cataloged as terrorists, the betrayal seems to be far deeper.”
We all become victims of this so-called “transparent agreement”.
And rightly so, though the extraction of data for advertising has been the oldest trick in the tech trade, here it is exacerbating vulnerability for a particular religious community. Here, the unilateral and non-consensual extraction of data has far more grave repercussions: the US military can use location-sensitive data to accurately target drone strikes.
It is one thing for algorithms to generate attractive advertisements on your Instagram based on your Google searches (we’ve all been subjected to the sorcery of Artificial Intelligence, haven’t we?) But it is an entirely different affair for technology to assist state security, in particular, the U.S. Special Operations Command, a branch of the military tasked with counterterrorism that became the key beneficiary of this “leak”.
Muslim Pro has promised to “launch an internal investigation”. But this was just another in line with multiple major privacy breaches in the past few years. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, for instance, revealed the hideous truth about Facebook’s new realm of power and its capability of contorting the organic human experience. One might be compelled to wonder: are these isolated incidents or are they glimpses into the dark underbelly of the tech world?
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