Experts suggest fitness tracking data reveals locations of US military bases

Experts suggest fitness tracking data reveals locations of US military bases
© Getty

An online interactive map that tracks the location of fitness-device users has revealed highly sensitive information about the location and staffing of U.S. military bases, according to reports.

Strava, a GPS tracking company, published a Global Heat Map using satellite information from 13 trillion data points to follow the whereabouts of people using devices that track fitness activity, such as Fitbit. 

The location and activity of the millions of people who use Strava's services are illuminated on the global map over a two-year period, from 2015 to September 2017. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Some parts of the U.S. and Europe blazed bright with the activity of millions of people using fitness devices, while conflict zones in places such as Iraq and Syria showed only the slightest, scattered sparks of activity.

Individuals on Twitter quickly pointed out that zooming in on those limited pinpricks reveals known U.S. military bases, as well as other unknown but potentially sensitive sites, likely due to American military personnel using such fitness trackers.

The company responded by pointing to their app's settings, which allows users to opt out of having their location information mapped.

"Our global heatmap represents an aggregated and anonymized view of over a billion activities uploaded to our platform. It excludes activities that have been marked as private and user-defined privacy zones," Strava said in an emailed statement to The Hill.
 
Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told the The Washington Post on Sunday that the U.S. military is reviewing the implications of the heat map.

Nathan Ruser, who is studying international security and the Middle East, first stumbled upon the map and began tweeting about his findings, which sparked interest across the internet as analysts, military experts and journalists began to look into the map.

“If soldiers use the app like normal people do, by turning it on tracking when they go to do exercise, it could be especially dangerous,” Ruser noted on Twitter. 

Tobias Schneider, a German-based international security analyst, told the Post that since the identity of the users in the map remain anonymous, some individuals could part of outside groups like aid agencies. 

But he noted that the map also lights up activity around known or suspected U.S. military sites, offering a trove of details about activity inside the bases, such as the possible exercise habits of soldiers — information that could be very dangerous for enemies to obtain.

The U.S. is not the only country that appears to reveal such information: Russian bases also appear to show activity on the map, the Post reported. 

Ruser told the newspaper that Strava apps and devices leave the user with the responsibility of turning off the data transmission service, which he said seems like "a big oversight." 

Strava had published an earlier post encouraging users to read and understand their privacy settings as provided on their website, which they presented as multi-tiered and customizable, including the option to "respect user defined privacy zones."

The Hill also reached out to the U.S. military for comment.

The Post noted that the Pentagon has encouraged military personnel to use Fitbits, distributing roughly 2,500 of them in 2013 as part of a pilot program to combat obesity.