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US rights group urges Congress to probe reports military mining data from Muslim apps

Cair calls for congressional enquiry after Google pulled several Muslim apps from its Play store which reportedly harvested users' location data, email and phone numbers
'Qibla Compass' app on a phone at the Ibn Rushd-Goethe Mosque in Berlin, on 28 July 2017 (AFP)

The largest American-Muslim rights group has urged congressional leaders to investigate reports that US military contractors have continued to spy on Muslims using religiously-themed mobile phone apps.

In a statement on Monday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) said it wrote to US House and Senate committees on judiciary, armed services, and intelligence after the Wall Street Journal reported on the continued surveillance of Muslim Americans.

According to the Journal, Google recently removed several Muslim apps from its Play store after they were found to contain hidden data-harvesting software developed by a company tied to US national security contractors. 

That hidden code allowed the military contractor to secretly collect "precise location, personal identifiers such as email and phone numbers as well as data about nearby computers and mobile devices", the Journal reported.

Al-Moazin Lite and Qibla Compass were among several popular apps temporarily banned by Google in late March. 

"CAIR is urging Congress to protect American Muslims, in addition to Muslims overseas, whose Islamic prayer apps and their corresponding cellphone data continue to be spied on by multiple US military contractors - and purchased by the US military," said Robert McCaw, government affairs director at Cair.

Google removes Muslim prayer apps containing hidden software, report says
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"This ongoing spying on American Muslims' cellphone metadata and Islamic app usage is a direct attack on the First Amendment rights of our community and its consumer privacy."

In 2020, Vice's Motherboard reported that the popular prayer app Muslim Pro sold its users' location data to a company called X-Mode, which then sold it on to third-party contractors which in turn provided the data to the US military.

The app, which boasts nearly 100 million downloads, determines the hour of prayer times and the direction of Mecca for its users based on geolocation.

Since the report, Muslim Pro has said it will no longer share user data with X-Mode.

"For years, far too many Muslim Americans have experienced spying, profiling, and other forms of government discrimination here at home, while far too many Muslim civilians overseas have been killed in drone strikes and other disastrous military operations," Cair said in its letter to the US lawmakers. 

"The notion that our government might be using popular religious applications to engage in such conduct simply adds insult to injury.

"Cair believes that a full and public congressional inquiry is required to explore one of the first documented cases of the US military purchasing the movement and location data of Muslim app users – including American Muslims."

Last week, Cair and its counsel, the Communications & Technology Law Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over the practices used to extract personal data from the apps.