Date
26 September 2018
The Pentagon is reported to have ordered a review of security protocols amid concerns that fitness tracking devices were exposing movement patterns at US military facilities. Photos: Strava, Reuters
The Pentagon is reported to have ordered a review of security protocols amid concerns that fitness tracking devices were exposing movement patterns at US military facilities. Photos: Strava, Reuters

Strava app’s ‘Global Heatmap’ sparks US military security review

The US Defense Department is said to have ordered a review of security protocols amid worries that fitness tracking devices were exposing patterns of movement at military facilities around the world. 

The move came after a Twitter user from Australia drew attention to data after stumbling upon GPS tracking firm Strava’s Global Heatmap, Reuters reports. 

On Jan. 28, Nathan Ruser, a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, tweeted about the Strava heat map, saying “It looks very pretty, but not amazing for Op-Sec. US bases are clearly identifiable and mappable.”

He wrote that in Syria, for instance, one can detect “a bunch of bright spots”.

His discovery prompted others to scour the heat map, turning up other possible locations of US and other mostly Western personnel who typically use high-tech fitness devices, Reuters noted.

Although many of the bases cited by Ruser and others are well-known military outposts, there are clear risks that such tracking devices pose, potentially disclosing not just the broad locations where foreign troops operate but the routes they travel.

There is also the risk that Strava itself could become a target of nations trying to mine its data to discover identifiable information about who was wearing the devices, the report noted.

Amid these concerns, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a security review, officials were quoted as saying. 

Strava, which calls itself “the social network for athletes,” claims that its mobile apps and website connect millions of people every day.

The California-based company released a heat map in November 2017, using one billion recorded activities through September 2017 across 3 trillion latitude and longitude points.

Users can connect a GPS device, including smartphones and fitness trackers like Fitbit to its app that allows them to record their exercise and share the workout logs with others online.

In countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the users of Strava seem to be almost exclusively foreign military personnel, meaning that bases stand out brightly, The Guardian reported.

The newspaper noted that zooming in on the bases in warzones and deserts clearly reveals the layout of the facilities, as mapped out by the tracked jogging routes of numerous soldiers.

The presence of military installations has previously been shown by Google maps and public satellite images. But Strava’s map provided additional context such as how people were moving about in those areas, tech news outlet The Verge pointed out.

Strava has urged users to check the firm’s website to understand the privacy settings.

A spokesman for the firm told CNBC: “Our global heat map represents an aggregated and anonymized view of over a billion activities uploaded to our platform,” adding that the map excludes activities that have been “marked as private and user-defined privacy zones.”

A version of this article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 30

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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