More than a dozen Democratic lawmakers concerned about possible violations of civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Bill of Rights asked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Thursday for more information about how and why the U.S. military is buying "access to large quantities of personal data" collected from cellphone applications targeted toward Muslim users.
"The American Muslim community deserves to know why the U.S. military targeted their data and what they did with that data."
—Rep. Mark Pocan
The letter (pdf) requesting an investigation into U.S. military purchases of private location data was led by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
The demand for a probe comes in the wake of a bombshell report published in November by Motherboard about the Pentagon's acquisition of "the granular movement data of people around the world, harvested from innocuous-seeming apps," including but not limited to a widely used Muslim prayer and Quran app with nearly 100 million downloads worldwide as well as a popular Muslim dating app.
Referring to Motherboard's reporting on how "a company called X-Mode... obtains location data directly from apps, then sells that data to contractors, and by extension, the military," the lawmakers wrote that "this disclosure raises serious concern that such information is advancing systematic, warrantless surveillance of the Muslim-American community contrary to the privacy protections guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution."
In a joint statement released Thursday, Pocan said that "we cannot begin another administration continuing the systemic surveillance of Muslim communities."
"The American Muslim community deserves to know why the U.S. military targeted their data and what they did with that data," Pocan continued. "We cannot simply repeat the mistakes and opacity of the previous administration."
"The Biden administration," he added, "has an opportunity to prioritize transparency and the civil liberties of Muslim Americans after two decades of surveillance and spying by our federal intelligence community. We urge them to do so."
Tlaib—who, along with Omar, was one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress—called it "beyond troubling" that the U.S. military purchased data from apps catering to Muslim audiences. "We need answers," Tlaib added, "as to why this happened and action to ensure it never happens again."
We cannot pick and choose who the Constitution applies to. Our government cannot continue to violate the privacy of Americans. https://t.co/2mFA57spJU— Rashida Tlaib (@RashidaTlaib) February 18, 2021
Denouncing the fact that Muslim communities throughout the country "have had their civil liberties compromised, their rights abused, and their privacy ignored... for decades now," Omar said those injustices are especially "unacceptable in a country that promotes the freedom of religion and assembly."
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"The Biden administration must provide a full explanation for this blatant abuse of power and potential violation of the Constitution," she added, "and ensure that it does not happen again."
For decades now, the Muslim community have had their civil liberties compromised, their rights abused, and their privacy ignored.— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) February 18, 2021
The Biden Administration must provide a full explanation for this blatant abuse of power and ensure that it does not happen again. https://t.co/QwIy5xnjQc
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil rights organization, applauded the Democratic lawmakers for "working hard to defend the civil rights of American Muslims by rejecting government surveillance and seeking answers from the Biden administration about whether it will reject such discriminatory abuses of power or inherit ownership of them from the prior administration."
In their letter to the Pentagon, the lawmakers wrote that "we wish to know more about these data purchases, the use of information gleaned from the data, and any possible violation of privacy rights granted by the Constitution and protected by law."
They demanded answers—with separate responses from each military and intelligence agency—to the following questions:
- Has any warrantless surveillance occurred on any U.S. citizen using purchased location data?
- Has any surveillance whatsoever occurred on any U.S. citizen using purchased location data?
- Did X-Mode or any other location data provider tout access to location data of Muslims as a feature of its service in communications with U.S. military or intelligence community agencies?
- Were apps used primarily by the Muslim community targeted for data purchases? If so, which apps specifically?
- For the first and second questions above, how many Muslim Americans were impacted? How many non-Muslim Americans?
- Have agencies purchased information or data (or access to information or data) that would otherwise be unavailable to the American military, American intelligence community, or American law enforcement agencies? If so, specifically what type of information/data, and how many individuals were possibly included in the data/information?
- Do the U.S. military or intelligence community agencies currently possess location data of American citizens, including Muslim Americans? If so, which agencies, and how was this data obtained?
- What was the cost of each contract the military has executed for the purchase of location data?
- Of the location data that the military and the intelligence community possess, is the data of Muslim American citizens and non-Muslim American citizens segregated in any way? If so, please describe the process, purpose, and use of any such segregation and resulting usage.
- Has evidence been used in any court application, trial, hearing, or other proceeding that consists of, was obtained from, or was derived from location information purchased from a commercial vendor?
- What are the circumstances under which the government notifies criminal defendants, or other parties in legal proceedings, of the use of evidence that consists of, was obtained from, or was derived from location information purchased from a commercial vendor?
- For any purchased location data, are—or were—the military and intelligence community agencies aware of what apps generated such data prior to purchasing? Please describe each agency's awareness of the source of the data.
- If the military or intelligence community has engaged in any data purchasing that targeted Muslim Americans or Muslims generally, has similar targeted purchasing occurred with respect to any other ethnic or religious minority?
"Thank you for your attention to this important matter," the lawmakers concluded. "It is imperative that every American citizen, no matter their ethnicity or religion, is certain their Fourth and First Amendment rights are not only protected, but equally enforced."
As Tlaib put it in her statement, President Joe Biden "must ensure that the civil rights of all people, including Muslim Americans are protected."
"We cannot continue to allow our government to intrude on and violate the privacy and rights of people across this country," Tlaib added. "We cannot pick and choose who the Constitution applies to."