Vice published a bombshell report in November, showing the United States military had acquired the location data of millions of Muslims around the world by purchasing personal user information from third-party content aggregators. The companies had obtained location data directly from online apps, including popular Islamic prayer app Muslim Pro, which boasts 100 million downloads, and a Muslim dating app.
This revelation is terrifying, given Muslims have been made the referent object in national security discourse for the past two decades and the target of US “war on terror” counterterrorism policies, resulting in the surveillance, harassment, and detainment of Muslim communities; and the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of Muslims worldwide.
Muslims have been made the referent object in national security discourse for the past two decades and the target of US “war on terror” counterterrorism policies.
“The news highlights the opaque location data industry and the fact that the US military, which has infamously used location data to target drone strikes is purchasing access to sensitive data,” observes Joseph Cox for Vice’s Motherboard. Cox’s investigation revealed that US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) – a branch of the Pentagon tasked with executing counterterrorism strategy abroad – procured user location data to specifically assist its deployed Special Forces units.
User data was collected and sold by US-based and owned company X-Mode, which boasts of building “exceptional location technology with the user in mind.”
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) told Vice that X-Mode was also selling location data taken from US phones to US military customers via defense contractors, saying he had taken a call with the company’s lawyers in September.
No doubt these revelations are shocking, but they’re hardly surprising to those who have accurately described and exposed the synchronicity between US-based technology companies – otherwise known collectively as “Big Tech”— and technology companies domiciled in US friendly countries, and the foreign policy objectives of the United States.
In fact, Big Tech doesn’t pretend otherwise!
In July, the US Congress subpoenaed the chief executive officers of Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon to grill them on their alleged breach of antitrust laws and question their loyalty to US foreign policy objectives, particularly in regard to their respective commercial ties with China. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai was asked about his company’s commitment to the US, he replied that he was “proud to support the US government” and boasted he had “recently signed a big project with the Department of Defense.”
Social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have been more obvious in their efforts to align their operational behaviors with the strategic interests of the US and its allies.
Social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, have been even more obvious in their efforts to align their operational behaviors with the strategic interests of the US and its allies. One only has to observe the manner in which it routinely suspends and removes user accounts owned by those in countries generally opposed to the US, including Iranian, Russian, and Chinese nationals, while rarely or reluctantly taking action against users who support the overarching policy objectives of the US and its allies.
The idea that these social media companies provide users from all countries an impartial platform built on fairness and equality for all is demonstratively absurd, given they’re profit driven corporations domiciled in the US. Thus, their strategic decisions are driven not only by the quest for ever-higher revenues but also US law and US preferences.
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Kashmiri activists have long spoken out against this dynamic, claiming Twitter and Facebook enforce a much stricter policy against them than it does with accounts that express support for Israel, citing the United States’ “special relationship” with both Tel Aviv and New Delhi.
“Nowhere are ties between tech and state officials more evident than in their dealings with Israel,” observes Jonathan Cook for Middle East Eye. “This has led to starkly different treatment of digital rights for Israelis and Palestinians. The online fate of Palestinians points to a future in which the already powerful will gain ever greater control over what we know and what we are allowed to think, and over who is visible and who is erased from public life.”
Facebook has demonstrated that it deems vague or even commonly used Arabic terms or slogans to be “incitement to violence.”
To this end, Facebook has demonstrated that it deems vague or even commonly used Arabic terms or slogans to be “incitement to violence,” when posted by Palestinian users. At the same time, it ignores Israeli accounts that openly call for “death to Arabs,” with +972 Magazine accusing the social media platform of demonstrating a “political bias in favor of elevating the Israeli narrative while suppressing the Palestinian one.”
Cracking down on the rights of Palestinians or Kashmiris to exercise free speech on social media platforms is one thing, as unconscionable and unjust as it might be. But, it’s another thing altogether when they’re collecting and selling the location data of Muslims to third-parties that then sell that data to the US military, who, in turn, uses it to track, monitor, harass, and extra judicially murder targeted or suspected Muslims.
Nowhere in Muslim Pro’s user agreement does it mention X-Mode or the fact that user location data may or may not end up in the hands of the US military, only giving assurance to following “all applicable privacy and data protection laws and platform guidelines.”
“The question to ask is whether a reasonable consumer of these services would foresee of these uses and agree to them if explicitly asked,” Chris Hoofnagle, Faculty Director at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology, told Vice. “It is safe to say from this context that the reasonable consumer—who is not a tech person—would not have military uses of their data in mind, even if they read the disclosures.”
Ultimately, these revelations further demonstrate that social media platforms are still a risky and unreliable environment for Muslim communities worldwide.