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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Muslim Pro controversy: How to protect your data from being sold by apps


With recent news exposing how apps like Muslim Pro sell data to the US military, concerns over privacy have increased. Here is how sensitive data can fall into the wrong hands and how to protect yourself.

Muslim Pro, an app with almost 100 million downloads, provides Muslims with prayer times, Qibla directions and verses from the Quran. However, it was also indirectly selling location data to the US military.

Vice reported earlier this week that the US military purchases location data from a company called X-Mode – a service that allows app developers to generate extra revenue by automatically selling their users’ location data. 

The monetising feature is installed in apps including Muslim Pro, Muslim Mingle, and many others, with X-Mode’s CEO boasting the company tracks up to 65 million devices every month.

This week’s revelation prompted immense backlash across the world, and a quick search for Muslim Pro on Twitter shows users pledging to delete the app over what has been described as a betrayal.

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But did Muslim Pro and other apps betray the privacy of their users? To answer this question, we need to take a look at how this situation occurred in the first place.

What is X-Mode?

For developers looking to earn extra income from their apps, X-Mode provides them with an opportunity to do so by selling user data. The service has a calculator tool on its website that shows how much revenue can potentially be generated based on the number of daily active users an app has.

[Doha News]
Once installed, X-Mode then sells the data to defence contractors who sell it to the US military. 

The website’s friendly design can appeal to developers by abstracting away the extent at which it threatens the privacy of their users. Phrases such as “PASSIVE REVENUE: EARN MORE, DO LESS” fill the website to lure developers into selling away their users’ data. After all, who wouldn’t want to make an extra $10k with just a few steps of work?

A line of defence

By acting as a middle man, X-Mode also offers itself as a line of defence for app developers caught selling the data of their users. When asked to comment about their relationship with X-Mode, most developers said they didn’t know their app’s data ended up with the US military. 

This is the approach Muslim Pro took when it finally released its statement.

Media reports are circulating that Muslim Pro has been selling personal data of its users to the US Military. This is INCORRECT and UNTRUE,” the statement claimed.

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The multi-layered process allows app developers to release misleading statements claiming not to sell user data to the US military. While Muslim Pro probably did not know who purchased its users’ data, it was intentionally and knowingly selling it. 

Why you should care about this

Stories like this pop up from time to time, and they serve as a great reminder for us to become more conscious about protecting our privacy. Your location data is likely constantly mined by services such as X-Mode through apps such as Muslim Pro. This comes at the cost of your battery, data allowance, but most importantly, your privacy.

This is clearly a problem that is further solidified by the fact that app developers themselves hide this information. Muslim Pro does not even mention X-Mode in its privacy policy at all and offers no way to opt-out of this tracking. The statement itself failed to address X-Mode altogether.

Companies are intentionally secretive about data mining because they know most users wouldn’t opt-in to this level of a precise collection in the first place.

How to protect your location data

Thankfully, iOS and Android both offer ways to limit location tracking by third-party apps. Both platforms now provide users with the choice to share location data with an app just one time, or only while the app is actively in use.

Sharing your location with an app just once is useful for prayer apps that only really need your location on the first launch. By doing this, you are protecting your location data from being constantly mined for profit at your expense. 

Since these settings are controlled by your phone and not app developers, there is nothing a developer can do to work around these limitations.

To share your location once, look for the location permissions popup that appears when you first launch an app. If you’ve given an app full location permissions, you are still able to revert those settings.

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On iPhone, you can control the level of location tracking for apps by opening settings and heading to privacy, then location services.

On Android, the steps may vary between different phones. You can search for location in your settings app for more information, or follow the instructions on Google’s support page.

Whether or not you are bothered by the sale of your personal information, it is important to pressure companies to become more transparent about what data they collect and what it’s used for. 

The outrage triggered over this week’s revelation serves as a reminder for app developers that a lack of transparency will always backfire.

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