On November 16th, 2020, Motherboard published an investigation on data collection and surveillance. At the centre of this story was the Muslim prayer app Muslim Pro. The article entitled “How the U.S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps” written by Joseph Cox was shared widely, garnering Muslim reactions of outrage and betrayal aimed at the app developers and affiliated companies selling data from those apps. Motherboard hit on a particular sensitivity within the global Muslim community given the use of heavy surveillance Muslim communities have faced in the post-9/11 world and the Global War on Terror. While many other apps sell data to companies which broker contracts with various corporations and government organizations, the article centred Muslim Pro’s sending of data to X-Mode, a company which holds contracts with corporations who have US military customers. More recently, on January 11th, 2021, Motherboard published another article by Cox entitled “Leaked Location Data Shows Another Muslim Prayer App Tracking Users” with a second prayer app highlighted as the leading element in the story. Salaat First, an app that reminds Muslims of prayer times, was found to sell their user location data to a French company called Predico which has been linked to US government contractors working with ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the FBI. Motherboard’s two pieces examine the intersections of religiosity and surveillance, given that the location data of Muslim users are potentially ending up in government surveillance programs. Users are unlikely to know where their data is going, and in the case of Muslim Pro, the company failed to inform their users of the sale of data to X-Mode. Both prayer apps have since terminated their associations with X-Mode and Predico, and Apple and Google have banned X-Mode from their app stores.
Motherboard‘s investigation raises the question of why governments are interested in forms of religiosity that can be read from prayer apps. Forming links between outward signs of Muslim religiosity and extremism is not a new game. The extensive government infiltration of mosques, for example, is well documented, and forms of Islamic practice have been analyzed for potential links to extremism. As Sharmin Sadequee (2018) has argued, the amorphous concept of “radicalization” has been linked to forms of religious expression common to Muslim communities globally. For example, she cites the NYPD’s 2007 report ““Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” where preliminary signs of radicalization can be read in such “relatively innocuous items as attending mosque, giving up cigarettes, growing a beard, wearing traditional Islamic clothing, and becoming involved in social activism” (477). She goes on to argue that, “When Islam is placed at the center of the government’s security policing and surveillance programs, every facet of a Muslim’s religious and social life becomes open to scrutiny” (480). Therefore, it is not a far leap to conclude that the Muslim prayer apps are used to read the movements and habits of Muslims for the sake of measuring radicalization. The Salaat First investigation by Motherboard demonstrated that the precise location of users, their phone information, IP address, and timestamps, among other things, could be gleaned from the app’s data. The data also included a person’s unique advertising ID which would allow a person’s movements to be followed through time. Such facts are of course alarming, and it is unlikely the average user would be informed of this use of their data.
The issues of the data industry, of surveillance, and of user consent are important, and the Motherboard investigations are troubling to say the least. However, the more I read the articles, the more I questioned the case for Motherboard’s focus on Muslim Pro and Salaat First. Both articles mention other apps that sell user location data in similar ways. Some of these apps are targeted to minority communities such as Muslim Mingle, Iran Social, and Columbia Social which sell data to X-Mode. But apps such as Accupedo, a step counter app, and CPlus for Craigslist, which allow users to search Craigslist, have also sold user data to X-Mode. Weather apps Fu*** Weather and Weawow have sold user data to Predico. Therefore, such general apps could also be used for surveillance without user consent. Second, a direct link between user data and US military contractors has yet to be proven. For example, the data brokers such as X-Mode were shown to have links to US military contractors through Sierra Nevada Corporation; however, Motherboard did not provide conclusive evidence that Muslim Pro’s data ends up in the hands of the US military as X-Mode has multiple contractors. Predico was shown to be connected to Venntel, a US government contractor that sells data to US law enforcement agencies, but again, the direct link between the app Salaat First and government agencies remains unverified.
What Motherboard raised in its investigations were large questions, issues that merit scrutiny. Links between religious apps and surveillance should be looked at closely and people should be made aware of them. However, I urge readers to be wary of Motherboard‘s framing of its investigative pieces. There seems to be a good case for the heightened alarm around the use of Muslim prayer apps (and other religious or ethnically targeted apps) and data used for surveillance. But given that the direct link between the data from these prayer apps and US government agencies still needs to be made, and that other apps share the same data streams, it follows that Motherboard purposely constructed their story around the prayer apps to hit a sensitive spot in Muslim and minority communities around government surveillance, instrumentalizing this fear to increase readership and interest in its publications.
And we readers bought into the story, focussing our anger at Muslim Pro and Salaat First, while our data is harvested through the multiple apps we use on a daily basis. What Motherboard has actually shown are issues related to the data industry in general: users are unaware of where their data is ending up and how it is being used. As the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma (2020) asserts, surveillance capitalism underlies much of the tech we use, and in the case of free apps, “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” meaning our particular usage, habits, and attention are being bought and sold on the market. I am not saying that government programs are not specifically using Muslim users’ location data for surveillance purposes. That is entirely possible. What I am saying is that we should be wary of Motherboard‘s construction of a narrative around Muslim developed apps for the sake of media sensation to increase reader interest and make their stories go viral. Muslim Pro and Salaat First have to account to their users for selling their data, but they are not uniquely insidious for selling user data as it is a problem common to the broader data industry.
For researchers thinking of the intersections of religion and surveillance in the Global War on Terror, surveillance capitalism is a major defining feature of what Salman Sayyid (2018) calls “Cyberia,” the new geography of cyberspace — once perceived as a space of individual freedom outside of the control of major government entities, and now the site where major corporations and governments have created “a crypto-infrastructure of surveillance and regulation.” (99) The Motherboard stories raise the entanglements of Muslim surveillance and the new realities of Cyberia where surveillance is a pervasive issue affecting all internet users of every community.
Cox, Joseph. (2020, November 16). How the U.S. Military Buys Location Data from Ordinary Apps. Motherboard. https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgqm5x/us-military-location-data-xmode-locate-x
Cox, Joseph. (2021, January 11). Leaked Location Data Shows Another Muslim Prayer App Tracking Users. Motherboard. https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgz4n3/muslim-app-location-data-salaat-first
Rhodes, L. (Producer), Orlowski, J. (Director). 2020. The Social Dilemma. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/watch/81254224
Sadequee, Sharmin. 2018. Surveillance, Secular Law, and the Reconstruction of Islam in the United States. Surveillance & Society, 16(4), 473-487.
Sayyid, Salman. 2018. Topographies of Islamophobia in Cyberia. Journal of Cyberspace Studies, 2(1), 55-73