We have recently seen the government’s circumvention of the Fourth Amendment by purchasing data from private companies that gather all sorts of information about U.S. persons from their cellphones, location-tracking apps, and other interactions with the internet. Turns out that such pay-to-play voyeurism by the government also has a more sinister anti-religious aspect to it, wrapped in the never-to-be-criticized claim of national security.
Examples: A Muslim prayer app that tells the user when to pray and points to Mecca … A religiously oriented Muslim dating site … and a non-religious app that people use as a level for putting up shelves in their homes … all of these digital services generate granular movement data about the user that can be deanonymized in a snap. And now it is in the hands of the Pentagon.
This is a disturbing and deceptive turn, especially in light of recent jurisprudence. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Carpenter that the government is required to obtain a warrant before accessing the historic location data of American citizens captured by our devices and apps. The ruling, however, has a loophole the size of a cell tower. The government can simply purchase that same information from data brokers without even seeking a warrant. A recent Harris Poll survey found that 77 percent of Americans believe such snooping should require a warrant. Nevertheless, the practice is common and there are signs it is growing more popular with agencies, from the Department of Homeland Security to the IRS, and now the military U.S. Special Operations Command.
While the potential for infringing Americans’ privacy is obvious, the government’s secretiveness about these practices has made tracking down real-world examples difficult. A Motherboard investigative report from Vice into the U.S. military’s use of location data purchased by two defense contractors shows exactly how simply opening the federal wallet allows the government to sidestep a Supreme Court ruling.
Moreover, targeting people by religion is inextricably tied to activities protected under the First Amendment. Data gleaned from the app Muslim Pro, billed as the “Most Popular Muslim App,” is derived from over 98 million users worldwide. Muslim Pro provides Quranic readings, reminders for daily prayers, as well as locating the direction of Mecca. The military is also accessing the dating app Muslim Mingle.
If the war on terror justifies this intrusion in the lives of American Muslims (many of whom embraced their new country after fleeing extremism), what about Orthodox Jews who violate the New York Mayor’s orders concerning pandemics? What about Christians who espouse doctrines that go against official government policy concerning abortion? Would the government be justified in scraping data from Bible.com or Torah.com?
Military spokespeople are quick to point out the data is used only for overseas operations and that all proper procedures for protecting Americans’ constitutional rights are being followed, but we have heard such unsupported assurances before from the FBI and others. They have often given us reason not to take them on faith. Given that millions of Americans are undoubtedly using this app, how exactly does the military ensure the privacy of Americans here or abroad? How does it know a target it is tracking abroad is not a U.S. citizen?
“We could absolutely deanonymize a person,” one source told Vice.
Likewise, how can the military ensure that this data purchased through a backdoor is not used against American citizens in other ways? And do they even try to do so? There is documented use of purchased data by the Department of Homeland Security, as well as by the Internal Revenue Service; and, despite the military’s protestations, there are no clear constitutional standards for how this data is collected, stored and used.
Muslim Pro users who are American citizens have a constitutional right to freely practice their faith. Their use of a faith-based app should not open them up as targets for warrantless surveillance, any more than similar uses by Jews and Christians.
Sens. Mike Lee and Patrick Leahy have addressed the need to bolster First Amendment activities by including independent, outside experts to review government surveillance requests. Also, Sens. Ron Wyden and Rand Paul will soon introduce a measure, “The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale” Act, that will restrict the extent to which the government can use purchased data to compromise our privacy.