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The government is surveilling American Muslims by buying their data. It’s time to close the loophole.

When you download something as mundane as a mobile prayer app, the last thing you’d expect is to be swept up in a U.S. military mass surveillance program.

But that’s exactly what happened to 98 million people when it was reported that MuslimPro—touted as the most popular Muslim app by its creators—had unintentionally funneled the personal data, including location information, of its worldwide users, including millions of Americans, to a U.S. military counterterrorism unit after selling that data to a third-party databroker.

As one former MuslimPro user succinctly put it, “My conversation with God is not information that the government needs.”

However, this doesn’t stop with MuslimPro. Our most mundane online actions, from Google searches to dating profiles, are amassed and sold to third-party data brokers, which are basically data “middlemen” who sell our data to the highest bidder. Typically, these data brokers turn our most sensitive personal data into lists that allow marketers to target consumers with personalized ads. But law enforcement has been taking to the commercial marketplace to access these troves of data that would normally require a warrant. This is a massive loophole in our Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures. That’s why privacy advocates are urging Congress to finally close this data broker loophole once and for all. 

Tech corporations have sold the public on a false promise that consumer data that’s being sold to these third-party data brokers is anonymized. However, tech executives are only providing a false veneer of privacy to consumers since researchers have found that 99.98 percent of individuals in anonymized datasets can be easily re-identified. The mass domestic surveillance implications of this are enormous. 

The location data industry is estimated to be worth $12 billion. While most of these companies live in obscurity, the public has only just begun to familiarize themselves with companies like Cambridge Analytica, which was using inappropriately obtained Facebook user data to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In the MuslimPro example, sensitive data like the location information of American Muslims who downloaded the prayer app are now presumably in a U.S. military counterterrorism database with no respect to their constitutionally protected rights to be free of invasive search. 

Muslim communities in the U.S. have firsthand experience with pervasive surveillance. We continue to bear the brunt of a decades-old surveillance apparatus that has dramatically expanded in the wake of 9/11: the NYPD’s sweeping suspicionless Muslim surveillance program, NSA and FBI spying on prominent American Muslim activists, FBI informants sent to embed themselves in mosques and entrap Muslims across the country—the list goes on. The FBI and other agencies also regularly exploit and abuse a post-9/11 provision that permits warrantless surveillance of Americans’ communications. These agencies regularly trot out the same tired arguments to justify such gross abuses of power: that we must trade away the cherished constitutional rights of a demonized community for the appearance of increased security. Buying sensitive data on Muslims is a continuation and escalation of decades of surveillance on Black and brown communities, which has predictably expanded to encompass most people in the U.S.

Digital privacy isn’t a partisan issue. The privacy of every single American—regardless of your color, political affiliation or faith—is compromised by this massive data broker loophole. The House Judiciary Committee demonstrated as much when it voted unanimously to advance the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act last month. A coalition of civil liberties organizations from all walks of life—including Muslim Advocates—are advocating for comprehensive reform to warrantless surveillance laws, including closing the data broker loophole and requiring a warrant before surveilling Americans’ communications. Congress must keep up the momentum and pass these essential reforms this year. The government shouldn’t be allowed to buy their way around or blatantly abuse Americans’ constitutional rights. 

Congress has an urgent opportunity to bring our laws in line with technological advances and the promises of our Constitution. It’s time to close the data broker loophole and reclaim our right to privacy. No American should wind up in a mass surveillance program, period—and certainly not because they chose to download a prayer app.

Sumayyah Waheed is the senior policy counsel of Muslim Advocates, a national civil rights organization that uses litigation, policy engagement and communications strategies to promote justice and equity while protecting the diverse spectrum of Muslim communities from anti-Muslim discrimination in all of its forms.

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