Tue 12 January 2021:
Salaat First, another popular Muslim prayer app that calculates Muslim prayer times worldwide, reminding the faithful when to pray, has been accused of selling users’ location data to tech firms that have ties with the US military,
Vice News reported on Monday that the location datasets showing the precise movements of its users were sold to Predicio, a French company reportedly linked to a US contractor which can claim historic dealings with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
The news about Salaat First came only two months after the revelation that the US military was collecting sensitive location data through another prayer and Quran app, Muslim pro, along with some others. The US military also had access to apps such as Mingle, a Muslim dating app, a Craiglist app, and a level app used for measuring.
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The Salaat First developer Hicham Boushaba, told Vice that the data collection can only occur if the user had downloaded the application in the UK, Germany, France, or Italy, as per the agreement he reached with Predicio in March 2020. However, many are in the dark about this agreement, and Google has now informed Vice that it would take action after concluding investigations regarding the data collecting claims.
Salaat First has been downloaded more than 10 million times on Android. It is also available on iOS, but only the Android version sends data to Predicio. The app also violates Google’s Play Store policies by not asking for a user’s consent to share location data with Predicio, even though an archived policy in their website mentioned it, Motherboard found.
A Google spokesperson told Motherboard that “the Play Store prohibits the sale of personal or sensitive data collected through Play apps. We investigate all claims related to apps violating our policies, and if we confirm a violation, we take action.”
One of the two parallel data streams that the US military uses was relying on “a company called Babel Street, which creates a product called Locate X US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), a branch of the military tasked with counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and special reconnaissance,” the Vice report from November 2020 said. A company called X-Mode, which was obtaining location data directly from apps was providing the other stream of information.
The reports from Vice note that many of its users whose information has been shared were Muslims. It is highly likely this has been done without their informed consent.
Predicio previously claimed on the company’s website that it was not using “business intelligence data to identify ethnic, religious, or political groups for human tracking or people identification of any sort,” after another Vice collaborative report with NRK on the company.
“Despite saying it does not support use cases to identify religious groups, the statement does not mention that Predicio was collecting granular location data from an explicitly Muslim-focused app,” the recent report noted.
Wawow, a weather app which also shared data with Predicio, told Motherboard that he has cut off the data transfer to the French company.
The news regarding Salaat First “highlights not only the use of religious apps to harvest location data, but also the ease at which this sensitive information is traded in the location data industry,” explained Motherboard’s Joseph Cox, the reporter who has been investigating the data breach.
The news sparked international condemnation and reignited debates about the US government’s mass surveillance programmes on Muslims in the wake of its “war on terror”.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the largest Muslim civil rights organisation in the US, called for a congressional inquiry into the possible surveillance of American Muslims and warned members of the faith group to stop using the application.
“We call upon Congress to conduct a thorough public inquiry into the government’s use of personal data to target the Muslim community here and abroad, including whether this data was used to illegally spy upon target Muslim Americans,” CAIR national executive director Nihad Awad said in November.
On Monday, US Senator Ron Wyden, whose office has been conducting an investigation into the data broker industry, told Motherboard that Google and Apple “need to ban every one of these shady, deceptive data brokers from their app stores.”