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ON THE FRONT LINES: Muslim Pro data sharing fearful reminder of tech's overreach

Collection of Muslim users' data cause for alarm, reminder to reform

The phone application Muslim Pro (sample content above) was supposed to help Muslims pray and regiment their spiritual experience. Its alleged sale of data to the U.S. military is a betrayal, and reveals the darker side of capitalist tech. – Photo by Muslim Pro / Youtube

Nearly every Muslim I know, young or old, had an application called Muslim Pro downloaded to their phones. The green-and-white mosque icon was a staple for so many Muslim-owned iPhone homescreens, serving as the Quran and prayer app of choice for many of us. 

Muslim Pro was a form of comfort and a nice reminder to pray and be mindful of God. From services like sending notifications and playing the adhan during the five daily prayers to pointing out the direction of the qiblah (direction of prayer) and encouraging different duaas (prayers), the app was a good place to keep track of prayers and learn more about Islam. 

Last Monday, Motherboard released an article that would shake Muslims to their core: The U.S. military is actively buying location data from apps through contractors, including but not limited to, Muslim Pro. 

Yes, an app where Muslims are reminded of their identity in an ever-digitalized world is actually selling the data of millions of its users that are all presumably Muslim to the U.S. military, an organization that has deeply disrupted the lives of millions of Muslims. It seems so obviously cruel and Orwellian that it is bone chilling. 

In its scathing report, Motherboard revealed that X-Mode, a company that gathers location data from apps and sells it to contractors, with one of those contractors being the U.S. military. 

The U.S. military has fought wars in the Middle East for longer than I have been alive, and Motherboard reports that it has used location data in the past to target drone strikes. 

Although Muslim Pro’s reach is global, with more than 98 million downloads, Muslims have been subject to all kinds of surveillance in post-9/11 America.

The New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division has been spying on Muslims in New York City and elsewhere, through police informants, mapping of Muslim communities, photo and video surveillance and other methods, according to a factsheet by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Since the release of the article, Muslim Pro has vehemently denied that it has been selling data to the U.S. military.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the developers of the app wrote, “Media reports are circulating that Muslim Pro has been selling personal data of its users to the U.S. military. This is INCORRECT and UNTRUE. Muslim Pro is committed to protecting and securing our users’ privacy.” 

Vanessa Taylor, a Muslim writer and editor for many publications that often explores surveillance in Muslim spaces, discussed the ways that Muslims felt violated from Muslim Pro allegedly selling out to the feds. Taylor points out the specific uneasiness and betrayal that Muslims are feeling about being surveilled on a space that was meant for prayer. 

As a Muslim, I really was not surprised by the news that an app targeting Muslims may be harvesting its data for the government, or for some other sort of nefarious purposes.

I have seen enough “X-Men” episodes from the '80s to know that marginalized groups that are often deemed as threats are likely to be on some grand database, especially in an age where information is currency and privacy is virtually nonexistent.

What is really, mind-numbingly horrifying to think about is: Where is all of this information going? What exactly is happening with the data being collected? Why does the U.S. military want this information? 

More than anything, this is a sharp reminder that we should all be aware of the ways that surveillance is playing an important role in our lives.

With every app we download, with every social media post, we are participating in the surveillance of ourselves, as our data is being actively bought and sold to the highest bidder. This data is then used for advertising, political agendas and all sorts of activity that we may truly never know.  

It also points to something that I have been thinking about — how all aspects of our lives, from our most intimate thoughts to our most sacred relationships, are being increasingly pushed to digital spaces that are owned by private companies that are only interested in making massive profits.

Even our spirituality is up for grabs by organizations with potentially dangerous purposes.

As a mutual of mine, @Dialectichiphop tweeted, “The scariest thing about this Muslim Pro revelation is the reminder of capitalism's ability to commodify everything. That the most sacred of acts: just wanting to make a dua'a or to stand in front of and talk to your creator, can even be compromised, surveilled and profited off.” 

Besides adding “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future” by Shoshana Zuboff to your winter break reading list (if you have read any of my other articles, I sound like a broken record here), you can also subscribe to Taylor’s newsletter NAZAR that provides a round-up of news about surveillance, among other topics.

You can also watch “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix and read about surveillance from news publications like The New York Times

Everyone should be concerned about surveillance. Not to sound like an alarmist, but all of our information is being bought and sold all the time. Like, all the time. It is time we start really paying attention to these events, and start thinking of ways to build more sustainable tech, as soon as possible. It is far past too late.

Ameena Qobrtay is the Inside Beat editor of The Daily Targum.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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