The Council on American-Islamic Relations urged the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday to rein in mobile location tracking, following reports that the vast and opaque industry has enabled surveillance of Muslims.
CAIR cited the extensive history of governments' monitoring of individuals and communities who practice Islam, as well as the revelation in 2020 that the U.S. military bought location data on Muslims. The purchases included information derived from an app with 100 million downloads that helps Muslims know precisely what time of day to pray and in which direction.
Such tracking, the group argued, often relies on insufficient privacy notice by apps, software code that developers and consumers may not be unaware of and even disregard for users' explicit choices. The petition said such data uses — particularly when they produced information that the government then buys — chill the rights of Muslims to practice their religion and constitute "unfair and deceptive" practices that the FTC is empowered to police.
"This is the low-hanging fruit of all the surveillance that disproportionately affects Muslims," Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer for CAIR, said during a press conference.
The petition, which was prepared by students at Georgetown University's law school, comes days after Android banned multiple apps from the Play Store. Researchers had found that the apps, several of which focused on Muslim prayer, were surreptitiously collecting user location data on behalf of a company with ties to a defense contractor. According to the Wall Street Journal, the researchers also shared their findings with the FTC.
Comedian John Oliver, who has previously helped focus and generate public attention on complex tech topics, dove into the data brokers who trade in location information in a recent segment of his show, highlighting just how much personal information is accessible and for sale.
CAIR, in its filing, urged the FTC to consider fines and other enforcement actions as appropriate. The petition also called for a rule-making that would govern mobile operating systems (like Android and iOS) as well as online ad exchanges.
FTC Chair Lina Khan, a Democrat, told a gathering of privacy professionals on Monday evening that the agency is considering regulating digital privacy broadly and even putting limits on unspecified data uses — although, even to begin the years-long process, Khan will likely have to wait for the pending confirmation of a fifth commissioner.
In addition, Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson has previously applauded a bill that would ban the federal government from purchasing commercial data on individuals without a warrant.