UK-based couple threaten legal action over Muslim Pro data sharing
A London-based Muslim couple who used one of the world’s most popular Islamic prayer apps, Muslim Pro, have threatened legal action against the company after it was found that the app's user data had ended up with third parties, including defence contractors and the US military.
Earlier this month it was revealed that Muslim Pro had sold its user data to a location technology company called X-Mode, which had reportedly then sold on the information to interested parties.
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Najah al-Mujahed and Baraa Shiban sent a legal letter threatening action over the misuse of their location data on Monday after hearing of the apparent abuse of privacy.
Following the revelations, published by Vice’s Motherboard site, Muslim Pro announced that it had severed all ties with X-Mode.
Muslim Pro has been dubbed "the most popular Muslim app in the world" and has been dowloanded over 95 million times in 200 countries, according to its website.
The app allows users to check on prayer times, and also shows the direction of Mecca, where Muslims face during prayer. The app can also be used for reading verses of the Quran and Islamic supplications.
In a legal letter seen by Middle East Eye, the couple’s lawyers say that Mujahed and Shiban are extremely concerned that Muslim Pro does not have a lawful basis for processing their personal data and that the couple did not consent to their data being shared with unspecified third parties.
“Of most concern, is that they certainly did not consent to their data being processed in a way that involves risks or its onward transmission to any third party with ultimate links to law enforcement and/or security agencies such as the US military,” the letter read.
Mujahed and Shiban have also raised concerns about the app harvesting data due to the nature of their sensitive jobs in diplomacy and international human rights, which sometimes requires them to travel to potentially risky countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.
“We both work in human rights and have regularly travelled to the Middle East to do our work," they told Middle East Eye.
"So we were deeply concerned that millions of users of Muslim Pro, like us, had no idea that our location data was potentially passing through a shady network of intermediaries to the US military.”
Shiban is a Yemeni expert who has worked as a human rights investigator with the NGO Reprieve, and was the former political advisor to the Yemeni embassy in London.
Mujahed is an inclusion, protection and gender advisor for the UK-based charity Islamic Relief.
“It’s about trust... would you want to know your every move was being tracked by the US military?" they told MEE.
"Imagine for a moment that we were meeting sensitive sources - democracy activists or people giving information about a drone attack - or some other issue where a person would not want a government to know their whereabouts.
"The idea that we are being tracked makes us worry that we are also potentially giving away the whereabouts of some of the sources, whose trust and confidentiality we rely on.”
The couple said that the reports had shocked them and that they now question what else was being done with their data.
"We come from Yemen, a place where the US has sadly contributed to the suffering of our people through its misguided war on terror for many years," they said.
"But the fact that this was happening without our knowing also makes us wonder who else was allowed to bug our phones through the app?”
Highly sensitive data
The pair have also asked to find out the purposes for which Muslim Pro shares, or has shared, their personal data, and how the company is taking steps to retrieve that data.
Mujahed and Shiban’s lawyers have asked the company to clarify how they have processed peoples’ information and the names of all third-party recipients to which the data has been disclosed, as well as the date which the app started sharing it with third parties.
Following the report by Motherboard, which showed that the US military had purchased the location data of millions of Muslims from around the world, users posted negative reviews on the app and caused uproar online.
On social media, many people said they were uninstalling the app and some drew parallels between US counterterrorism strategies and efforts at counter-radicalisation by the UK Home Office, such as the controversial Prevent programme, which many Muslims say targets them disproportionately.
Earlier this month, Zahariah Jupary, the head of community at Muslim Pro, dismissed the report’s findings as “incorrect and untrue,” but nonetheless said it was servering all ties with X-Mode.
“We are immediately terminating our relationships with our data partners - including with X-Mode, which started four weeks ago," he told Middle East Eye.
"We will take all necessary measures to ensure that our users practice their faith with peace of mind…”
Jupary also said that Muslim Pro had launched an internal investigation into the situation and was reviewing its “data governing policy to confirm that all user data was handled in line with all existing requirments”.
Mujahed and Shiban have called on Muslims to demand that apps stop accessing and selling on their data.
“I think that we as Muslims need to demand, collectively, that the app stores and app makers respect us, honour our trust, and stop assuming access to our data can be sold without our knowledge," they told MEE.
"I think sometimes we get treated as second-class citizens, because people assume we will not stand up for our rights. That’s not true.”
Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove, a London-based nonprofit organisation founded to ensure that technology is fair for all users, said that they are supporting the couple’s legal action.
Crider said they have taken the case because it could shed light on a vastly under-regulated part of the data market.
“The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is clear - you can’t do what these companies did. But companies think they can traffic freely in location data because the law has been under-enforced," Crider said in a statement sent to Middle East Eye.
"It’s especially awful to see millions of Muslims - a group who live under constant surveillance as it is - can’t even trust the app they use to pray five times a day. If it takes litigation to fix this, that’s what we’ll do.”
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