S’pore-based Muslim Pro app developers say no data sold to US military; PDPC investigating

The article claimed Muslim Pro sold its user location data to US data aggregation company X-Mode, which then sold it.
The article claimed Muslim Pro sold its user location data to US data aggregation company X-Mode, which then sold it.PHOTOS: SCREENGRAB FROM PLAY.GOOGLE.COM

SINGAPORE - The developers of Singapore-based Islamic smartphone app Muslim Pro said it was a “massive shock” to learn of the allegations that their user data might have been sold to the United States military through one of their data partners. 

They on Friday (Nov 20) said they have done their due diligence from the start to protect the app’s nearly 100 million global users, and reiterated denials that their company has ever or is currently selling personal data of its users to the US military. 

Singapore's privacy watchdog, the Personal Data Protection Commission (PDPC), is currently investigating allegations in a report by news outlet Vice Media on Monday (Nov 16).

The article claimed that Muslim Pro had sold its user location data to US data aggregation company X-Mode, which then sold it. Such companies, also known as data brokers, collect data or buy it from other companies.

Representatives from the app's developer, Bitsmedia, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview on Friday (Nov 20) that they did not sell such data to the US military, but did not deny sharing its data with third-party data brokers.

Mr Nik Emir Din, Muslim Pro's head of business development and its country manager in Malaysia, said: "What we want to be very clear today is Muslim Pro has not sold any of our users' data to the US military. This is something we've never done before. We are not doing right now."

He later added: "The news that it may have been the case through a third-party provider was a massive shock, not only for users but actually all of us here as well."

Vice had reported that the US military is buying private information gathered from apps around the world, including Muslim Pro. The app features services like an online Quran library, a daily prayer timing schedule, identifying prayer direction and sharing inspirational quotes to fellow users.

Vice said that Muslim Pro had sent location data of users to X-Mode, as well as other information like name of the Wi-Fi network to which a user's mobile phone was linked, a time stamp and details about the phone, such as its model.

Bitsmedia said it works with technology partners like X-Mode by sharing data it captures from its users as part of improving the app’s services and for other reasons like mobile advertisement development - Muslim Pro’s main revenue stream.

When asked by ST if Bitsmedia was aware of how these partners use the data shared with them, Mr Nik said that the company's checks before engaging these partners did not find anything suspicious with their partners.

"We have conducted due diligence and very thorough checks on them. And there was nothing for us to be aware of any sensitive business dealings in the past or present," he said.

Pressed repeatedly about the allegations that X-Mode had sold Muslim Pro's data to the US military, Mr Nik reiterated that his team had found no such indication of this - but had there been, they would not have worked together with X-Mode.

He added that according to Bitsmedia's recent interactions with X-Mode, none of its users' data has been sold to the US military.

"We will take further action in the event that we discover that our trust, and the trust of our users, has been abused," he added.

Muslim Pro has terminated all relationships with such data partners, including X-Mode, according to a statement on its website on Tuesday.

Two days later, the company elaborated on its website that it collects, processes and uses information from users to improve its services and support further research and development for the app. This includes location data for features like calculating Muslim prayer times, which differ based on geographical location.

Its developers also claimed that data shared with its partners is anonymised and cannot be traced back to the individual users.

This was reiterated by Bitsmedia's head of platform engineering. Mr A.M. Masudul Haque on Friday, when quizzed about the nature of the data that was shared with Muslim Pro's partners.

"One thing I really, really want everyone to understand it (that) we are really committed to protecting our users' privacy. And any data we are sharing is anonymised, and we do not share any personal data of our users," he said.

When asked about the app's availability to opt-out of sharing personal data and if users are prompted with this option, Mr Nik replied that Muslim Pro complies with global privacy and regulation standards.

Pressed further by ST if users are given the option to not share their data, Mr Nik said users are prompted to accept the app's terms and conditions and its privacy policy when they start using the app. They would not be able to use the app if they declined these terms and conditions.

When checked by ST on Friday, Muslim Pro's online privacy policy did not mention X-Mode, but stated that Bitsmedia works with location-data Singapore-based firm Quadrant "to collect and share precise location information", and other data points including device type and IP address.

According to Quadrant's website, app publishers can integrate Quadrant's software development tools into their app, to monetise their users' anonymised location data for use by advertisers and marketers.

Quadrant lists X-Mode as a "trusted partner" on its website. Its policy also states that end users of apps that can opt out of sending their data to Quadrant, but users have to fill in a separate form on Quadrant's website.

Responding to queries, a PDPC spokesman said it was aware of the allegations that Muslim Pro is facing and has requested more information from Bitsmedia.

"Organisations with mobile applications available to Singapore users must comply with the data protection requirements of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA)," the spokesman said.

"We remind users to also be mindful of the type of permissions and personal data that they provide and how it may be used. If in doubt, users should not download or use any application."