The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is demanding that the U.S. government turn over all records related to private location data acquired from cell phone apps, including one used by nearly 100 million Muslims worldwide. The ACLU’s demand follows a Motherboard investigation that found data from apps including Muslim Pro was sold to the U.S. military, which the civil liberties group said violated a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in an ACLU case that law enforcement agencies cannot obtain cell phone location information without a search warrant.
“It’s yet another betrayal of trust for a community that has long been subjected to unconstitutional and intrusive surveillance practices by the U.S. government and by local law enforcement,” said Ashley Gorski, a staff attorney on the ACLU’s National Security Project, in an interview with NowThis.
In a Freedom of Information Act draft document obtained exclusively by NowThis, the ACLU and CUNY Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR) Clinic on Thursday filed a request for records dating as far back as 2017 from 10 government agencies, including the U.S. Special Operations Command — which appeared in Motherboard’s reporting — the Department of Justice, the National Security Agency, and multiple military forces. The ACLU is demanding information on contracts and agreements between the agencies and tech companies such as X-Mode, Locate X, and Babel Street.
“By purchasing all this information, it seems that the U.S. military and other federal agencies are really trying to circumvent that core Fourth Amendment protection,” Gorski told NowThis.
According to Motherboard, Muslim Pro — an app that provides users with prayer times based on their location — shared its location data with X-Mode, which it found had sold data to defense contractors. Motherboard used network analysis software to confirm the movement of location data — as well as information regarding Wi-Fi networks, timestamps, and phone models — from the app to X-Mode.
The ACLU is also seeking to find out why government agencies such as the FBI, which is named in the FOIA request, have in some instances refused to collect cell phone location data. According to a Protocol report, the FBI refused to purchase data through Locate X, while Gorski pointed out that other government agencies likely made legal justifications to buy the data anyway.
In acquiring these records, the ACLU aims to understand how the data was collected and how Muslims may have been targeted before bringing their findings to the public. And it could make way for future litigation and legislative solutions.
“There is absolutely something novel here,” Gorski said. “These latest revelations [about Muslim Pro] are very important to illustrate the scope of the problem.”
Law enforcement agencies have spied on Muslims in the U.S. before. In the case of Muslim Pro’s data compromisation, Gorski said the sale encroaches on the constitutional right to practice religion freely.
“It’s raising real First Amendment concerns, especially because we are talking about data that was first harvested from a prayer app,” Gorski said. “That really goes to the heart of what the First Amendment is designed to protect.”
In the post-9/11 case of the New York Police Department, Muslims in the city knew they were under surveillance long before it became breaking news. Informants made their way into mosques, community organizations, and small businesses, keeping tabs on local Muslims and creating a sense of fear.
“As if it weren’t offensive enough to spy on Muslims by sending informants into their mosques, the federal government is now spying on Muslims through an app that millions of people depend on to pray at home,” said Tarek Ismail, an associate professor of law and counsel at the CLEAR Clinic. “Where can a Muslim worship beyond the watchful gaze of law enforcement? It’s vital that we learn more about which agencies are using this software, where and how.”
Despite the many jokes and memes Muslim Americans have shared to make light of the situation, the government’s access to private data is dangerous — for everyone.
“It’s extremely sensitive and it’s revealing. It’s a window into everywhere we go. It’s a window into the people we meet with, who we pray with, what doctors we see, and everything we do,” Gorski said. “It really affects the way in which you move in the world. And I think that’s especially true for Muslim communities who’ve felt that chill so acutely and for so long.”