Senators Urge Pentagon to Expand Scrutiny of Fitness Apps that Can Reveal Sensitive Military Sites

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BY: Natalie Johnson

Two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday urged the Pentagon to expand its investigation into the use of wireless devices at military installations after reports emerged that fitness apps can unwittingly reveal the locations and movements of U.S. troops.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Sens. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) imparted their concerns over revelations that Android phones continuously collect and send to Google precise user location data, including GPS coordinates and nearby Wi-Fi networks.

The senators cited recent reports that stressed the difficulty for an average user to opt out of the location sharing capabilities and said there is a “strong likelihood” that most service members using Android phones “are sending precise location and activity data to Google, and, by extension, all divisions of its parents company, Alphabet.”

They said recent testimony from Google’s senior vice president and general counsel raised concerns the company lacks safeguards that could prevent the location data of U.S. troops and diplomatic personnel deployed overseas from being stored in foreign databases, including those located in adversarial countries such as Russia or China.

Cotton and Blumenthal also warned that Android phones collect and send to Google data on all Wi-Fi base stations that could include those located on military bases or in government buildings. While Wi-Fi operators can opt-out of location data collections by turning on a “nonmap” feature, the senators note “the instructions seem difficult to use.”

“We are concerned that DoD Wi-Fi base stations in military bases and facilities around the world could be mapped unwittingly by service members,” Cotton and Blumenthal wrote. “In an era of increasingly contested cyber domains, we could be unknowingly allowing our adversaries to map [Defense Department] networks for cyber intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and operational preparation of the environment.

The Pentagon announced last month it had opened a review into its guidelines for the use of mobile devices at military facilities after several reports revealed the fitness-tracking company Strava had posted a “heat map” online that inadvertently disclosed sensitive military locations.

As part of the investigation, Mattis is considering banning U.S. military and civilian personnel from bringing their personal cellphones and electronic devices such as FitBits into the Pentagon.