Soldiers relaxing

Pentagon lays down restrictions on location tracking apps

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Soldiers and other personnel will be forbidden from using fitness trackers or apps that could track their location while deployed in sensitive war zones and bases, the Pentagon has ordered.

Many fitness trackers and fitness apps use GPS to track the user’s location. This allows them, for instance, to keep track of their progress while running a certain route, or to share their favourite walking paths with their contacts. Users who choose to share their routes publicly can accidentally reveal personal information about themselves, such as the location of their home and workplace. Other apps also use geolocation capabilities to show the user attractions nearby, such as restaurants, bars, potential dates or augmented reality Pokémon.

The Pentagon memo states that geolocation capabilities are a “significant risk” to defence, and that they must be disabled under some circumstances. The order does not, however, ban the devices outright.

Military leaders will be able to decide whether it is appropriate for their personnel to be able to use GPS on their smart devices, given the security threat and sensitivity associated with their location. While soldiers deployed abroad to carry out sensitive operations in will likely be asked to switch off their GPS capabilities, personnel training at large, well-known military bases such as Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Fort Hood, Texas, will likely be permitted to continue using location trackers.

“Effective immediately, Defense Department personnel are prohibited from using geolocation features and functionality on government and non-government issued devices, applications and services while in locations designed as operation areas,” the Pentagon order, obtained by the Associated Press, stated.

“The rapidly evolving market of devices, applications, and services with geolocation capabilities (e.g.: fitness trackers, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and related software applications) presents significant risk to Department of Defense (DOD) personnel both on and off duty, and to our military operations globally.”

“These geolocation capabilities can expose personal information, locations, routines, and numbers of DOD personnel, and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission," it said.

The memo also stated that it would be providing additional cybersecurity training to help military personnel understand the risks associated with connected devices, and that personnel must adhere more strictly to established practices to lock up personal devices before they depart to discuss sensitive matters.

According to CNN, Pentagon spokesperson Col. Rob Manning said that the policy is about: “making sure we’re not giving the enemy an unfair advantage and we’re not showcasing the exact location of our troops worldwide.”

The memo follows a Pentagon investigation in January, after it was found that location data collected from users of the Strava fitness app – the “social network for athletes” – and collated into a global “heat map” revealed the day-to-day routines of military personnel in some secret US bases and rendered the bases “identifiable and mappable”.

In May, the Pentagon announced that it would be banning Huawei and ZTE phones from military base shops over concerns of espionage by the companies at the command of the Chinese government.

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