MuslimPro's 'data sale' benefiting the US army is betrayal that puts Muslim lives in danger

MuslimPro's 'data sale' benefiting the US army is betrayal that puts Muslim lives in danger
Comment: MuslimPro's sharing of private data with brokers who passed it on to US military exposed its Muslim users to the lethal consequences of US state surveillance, argues Mobashra Tazamal.
5 min read
24 Nov, 2020
The news shocked app users [Getty]

Data is today’s currency. It is the twenty-first century’s oil. Data drives everything as almost every part of our lives has become incorporated into the digital economy. We now have access to practically everything at our fingertips. On our phones, we all have dozens of apps from widely popular social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) to tailored services for specific audiences, such as those who need a reminder to stay hydrated during the day.

In this realm of the tech world, apps have also been created to help users with religious observation, learning, and spirituality. One such very popular app is MuslimPro, downloaded over 98 million times and used by Muslims in over 200 countries, which provides users with daily prayer times, a Qibla locator, an Islamic calendar, as well as a number of other features. 

A recent investigative piece by Joseph Cox for VICE sent shockwaves online after it revealed that the MuslimPro app had been allegedly selling users' private data to brokers who had then handed it to the United States military. The report found that a "company called X-Mode, which obtains location data directly from apps," with MuslimPro being being one of them, was selling the information to "contractors, and by extension, the military." The military is then reportedly using this data for "counterterrorism" operations.

There was rightful outrage from many Muslims following these revelations, with many deleting the app from their phones.

Most apps are free but more often than not a user is most likely offering up their personal data when using these services. Like Facebook, Instagram, and countless others, user information is collected and sold to third parties. Consumer data is used to tailor marketing ads to each individual. In the case of MuslimPro, one customer is the US miltiary.

MuslimPro sold its data to the US [Getty]

What differs in this instance is not the particular act of selling ones data; as consumers in the digital age we are all aware that our information online is never safe and there are always conditions to using these services. The shock can be summed up in two points: 1) an app tailored to the spiritual needs of Muslims sold users data: a clear ethical violation of a community that has frequently been surveilled by the state, and 2) the data was sold via a third party to the US military, an institution that has wreaked havoc in Muslim-majority countries, and in the past two decades has killed at least 800,000 individuals worldwide in post-9/11 wars.

The US military has been known to use location data to carry out illegal drone strikes as part of its "counterterrorim" efforts

The US military has been known to use location data to carry out illegal drone strikes as part of its "counterterrorim" efforts. The US covert drone warfare programme, which began under President George Bush and was rapidly escalated during the tenure of President Barack Obama, has to date killed an estimated 8,858-16,901 individuals in a number of Muslim-majority countries, some which are not sites of official warfare.

Many who were targeted have never been charged, tried, or convicted, but are murdered by a drone strike based on suspicion alone. Due to the heightened Islamophobia following 9/11, state led campaigns have resulted in the criminalisation of Muslims worldwide, rendering billions as suspected "terrorists."

In terms of Muslims in the United States, the community has long been targeted by the surveillance state. Muslim activists have campaigned against government initaitives such as the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme that marks the community as suspect and has been used to spy on millions. The state constant monitoring and infiltration of Muslim communities in the United States dates back decades.

Surveillance's racist roots

As writer Vanessa Taylor has noted, US "government surveillance culture has anti-black and anti-Islamic roots." A clear historical example of this was COINTELPRO, a series of covert and illegal projects by the FBI targeting opponents of the Vietnam war, memebers of the Moorish Science Temple of America, the Nation of Islam, and civil rights activists.

Following 9/11, American Muslims again became targets of organised illegal government surveillance. One of the biggest cases of state surveillance in the new millenium was in New York City, where the New York Police Department "engaged in the religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslims" in the city and neighboring areas.

The NYPD had infiltrated Muslim groups on university campuses, as well as placed informants in mosques and community centers, under the pretext that Muslim religious belief and practice was supsicious. The fear of being watched for the community is very real and present given the history of surveillance in the United States.

This is why the revelations from the VICE report have generated such a response. A Muslim-owned app that markets itself as a source for guidance and information regarding deeply spirtirual matters has essentially been a tool for surveillance.

It shared users data with third party contractors and immersed itself within the larger surveillance state apparatus. The government has a long history of spying on Muslims and this precedence of an invasion of privacy has instilled great fear within the community. One would expect the creators behind a Muslim-oriented app to be aware of this by refusing to engage with a system that has been so harmful to the community.

In this case, the data wasn’t given to some retail company that could tailor ads for consumers, it was handed to the very entity that is responsible for mass scale slaughter of Muslims worldwide. This is a deep violation and betrayal for Muslims around the globe.

Mobashra Tazamal is a researcher on Islamophobia at The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Independent, Middle East Eye, and AltMuslimah.

Follow her on Twitter:@mobbiemobes

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.