Secret government tracking software hidden in apps

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Red Magic 3S play store

  • A new report exposes how a federal contractor secretly puts government tracking software into hundreds of mobile apps.
  • The data gleaned from this tracking is then sold back to the US government for undisclosed purposes.
  • This tactic is deceptive because the tracking isn’t disclosed. However, it appears to be totally legal.

A new report today from The Wall Street Journal exposes yet another concerning development when it comes to mobile phone tracking. According to the report, at least one federal contractor puts government tracking software in over 500 mobile applications.

The contractor — a Virginia-based company called Anomaly Six LLC — pays mobile developers to include its in-house tracking code within their apps. The trackers then collect anonymized data from our phones and Anomaly Six aggregates that data and sells it to the US government.

It sounds crazy, but it’s happening. What’s more, it appears it’s totally legal.

Government tracking: What you need to know

The report from The Wall Street Journal makes it clear that the tracking software from Anomaly Six appears in over 500 mobile applications. However, Anomaly Six would not disclose the apps with which it has partnerships. The WSJ was unable to glean this information through other methods.

One would assume you could dive into the terms of service agreements of popular apps and find references to Anomaly Six. That would be a waste of time, though, because app developers don’t need to disclose the Anomaly Six tracker to users. Therefore, you could have one or even dozens of apps with Anomaly Six’s government tracking code and you would have no idea.

The tracking code used by this federal contractor does not need to be disclosed to the user by the app on which it’s running.

To be clear, the data Anomaly Six collects is anonymized. Each smartphone is attached to an alphanumeric identifier that isn’t linked to the name of the phone’s owner. Of course, there are plenty of ways one could use “anonymous” data such as these to figure out who owns the device. For example, the device will likely be idle at night while the owner sleeps, and the device’s location at that time is likely the owner’s home. Once you have that info, it isn’t hard to start concluding other user habits, such as where they work, what they use to commute, where they go out to eat, etc.

Since Anomaly Six doesn’t disclose its government tracking software, there’s no way to opt-out. In brief: you are being tracked and your smartphone habits are being sold to the government and there’s nothing you can do about it.

How is this legal?

Since the idea of tracking location data via smartphones is still so new, laws and regulations related to the practice are behind the curve. Since the data Anomaly Six collects is technically anonymous and since it isn’t selling the data for commercial purposes — i.e. advertising or marketing — it’s fine to do this within the eyes of the law.

Related: Is selling your privacy for a cheaper phone really a good idea?

The big question, though, is what the government is doing with this data. Is it just keeping tabs on its citizens? Does it use it for law enforcement purposes? Is it using it as a counter-terrorism tactic? There are a lot of questions here, but Anomaly Six has no intention of answering them. According to the company, the business it conducts is considered confidential (although technically not classified), so it can’t elaborate on its business partners without their strict permission. Obviously, that permission isn’t likely to be easy to get.

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