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Banal Smartphone Apps Are the New Surveillance State

Tech companies are getting rich by tracking Americans’ movements and then selling the data to various arms of the U.S. military-industrial complex.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In 2012, Factual, a Los Angeles–based technology company, had world-conquering ambitions. Intoxicated by the utopian rhetoric surrounding the growing field of big data, it planned to collect unprecedented amounts of information, enabling it “to identify every fact in the world,” as a New York Times profile put it. Whether cataloging types of cigars or tracking the specialties of America’s doctors, Factual was creating a Borgesian library of all the bits and bytes describing our world, promising to tease out novel connections and market-ready insights. From there, it would be a quick journey to immense profits.

Eight years later, Factual is a success, but it looks nothing like the animating vision that founder Gilad Elbaz described in the Times. Instead, armed with more than $100 million in investment funding, Factual has largely pivoted to location data—that is, tracking the locations of users’ smartphones to target ads and to collect and analyze information about consumer behavior. Factual is now a quintessential surveillance capitalist concern. Its job is to understand not the world but how people move through it and what they do—and then monetize it.

Where does that data and analysis go? To whom is your information sold? It’s often a mystery because this vast, growing industry is largely unregulated. But we do know that some of it is bought by various tentacles of the military-industrial complex.

One of Factual’s partners is a company called X-Mode. In an investigation published on Monday, Vice’s Joseph Cox revealed that X-Mode collects data from numerous apps and sells some of it to U.S. military contractors. “Many of the users of apps involved in the data supply chain are Muslim,” Cox noted. Among those apps is Muslim Pro, a prayer reminder that has been downloaded almost 150 million times across various platforms, as well as a step-counter app and an app for following extreme weather. (In an email, Foursquare clarified that they receive data from X-Mode but do not send them data.)* Another significant data broker with military ties is a company called Babel Street, which makes Locate X, a smartphone location-tracking product that has been used by U.S. Special Operations Command.

This is the new iteration of the surveillance state: a public-private partnership between tech companies and the government to track people en masse and without their consent. And there’s not a whole lot that everyday users like you can do about it. Nothing less than a combination of significant privacy legislation, vigorous regulation, and new business models can stop it.

Factual’s transformation is indicative of the gold rush in the location data industry. In April, it merged with Foursquare, originally an app for documenting one’s own social life and connecting IRL with friends (particularly at bars, restaurants, concerts, and the like). Today, Foursquare is less a social network than one of the kings of the location data industry, devouring huge amounts of location data and packaging and selling it to partners. As of last year, Foursquare was collecting data from 100 million devices in the United States each month. Its code is included in numerous everyday apps, from AccuWeather to Uber to WeChat. Factual’s own code can be found in apps made by Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

On a mass scale, this data can offer insights about whole populations, but on an individual level, it can reveal sensitive personal information: doctor’s visits, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even the movements of Secret Service agents. These kinds of data streams hold great interest for law enforcement and government agencies, both in the U.S. and abroad. Thanks to a series of important reports—in BuzzFeed, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Protocol, and now Vice—we know that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and other agencies have been buying up large amounts of location data from app-makers, data brokers, and various third parties enmeshed in a complicated array of partnerships, information sharing, and code-swapping.

The opacity extends to app-makers themselves: As Vice noted, some app-makers don’t even know where their data finally ends up; they simply are paid to include third-party tracking code in their apps. Others decide not to disclose to users where their location data might go. And then there are companies like Factual, which because of California privacy laws, states on its website that its customers include “government, law enforcement, or regulatory bodies.” That’s as much detail as the company offers. (After this article’s publication, Foursquare spokesperson Emily Malcynsky said in an email that when it comes to government clients, “We have worked with that general category on advertising campaigns (e.g. helping deliver ‘Go Army’ ads to devices that previously attended an NFL game), but have not and do not plan to sell location data as described in your article.”)*

While this industry largely conducts its business out of public view, there are clear legal concerns, especially surrounding government surveillance that may violate the law or bypass the need for a warrant. As Wolfie Christl, a researcher based in Vienna who is investigating the data economy, told me, “Accessing this data for government surveillance without a warrant is far beyond what is acceptable.… It completely undermines both basic rights and trust in information technology.” (The military claims that it uses Locate X’s data for overseas operations, but as with most of these deals, it’s almost impossible to tell where the data goes, how it’s being managed, or whether it’s used to de-anonymize individual users.)

Since Vice’s revelations, Twitter has been filled with outrage from prominent Muslim scholars and influencers, many of whom use Muslim Pro to tell them when to pray and how to face Mecca. The fact that much of this surveillance is covert, or barely mentioned in privacy policies, undermines user trust and enmeshes consumers in economic arrangements over which they have no influence. Given that the U.S. military receives some of this data, users are left wondering whether they’re being targeted for surveillance or worse. (On Tuesday, Muslim Pro released a statement denying that it sells data to the U.S. military and announcing that it was terminating its relationship with X-Mode.)

“This betrays the significant gap which exists between American citizens’ understanding of data collection practices and the data collectors’ themselves,” Adam Beddawi, a policy analyst for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a national nonprofit that advocates in policy and media on behalf of American Muslims, wrote in an email. “American citizens consider the issue in terms of privacy, while the collectors of data sympathize with privacy concerns in order to maintain control over the primary resource upon which our speculative economy is based. Closing this gap in understanding is merely one step toward a solution to the issue of government surveillance and to economic equality.”

While public education is key, there are few remedies for individual smartphone users. Delete one suspicious app, and you may still have dozens on your phone quietly logging your location and your habits and then selling that information—to whom, we may never know.

For companies like Factual, it may be a hard comedown from its initial dreams of understanding the world. Or perhaps it indicates a cruder response to that dream, as the company gives in to the lucrative promises of surveillance capitalism and becomes a prominent player in the location data industry. Foursquare’s Malcynsky says the recently merged company prohibits its clients from reselling its data, but as the reporting in Vice and elsewhere has made clear, the industry is rife with unscrupulous brokers. The “likelihood ... is very low,” she says, that your data could end up in the hands of government agents looking to deport people or military planners targeting alleged militants. But if it did, would you ever know?  

* This article was updated with statements from Foursquare.