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Banal Smartphone Apps Are the New Surveillance State

In 2012, Factual, a Los Angeles–based technology company, had world-conquering ambitions. Intoxicated by the utopian rhetoric surrounding the growing field of big data, it planned to collect unprecedented amounts of information, enabling it “to identify every fact in the world,” as a New York Times profile put it. Whether cataloging types of cigars or tracking the specialties of America’s doctors, Factual was creating a Borgesian library of all the bits and bytes describing our world, promising to tease out novel connections and market-ready insights. From there, it would be a quick journey to immense profits.

Eight years later, Factual is a success, but it looks nothing like the animating vision that founder Gilad Elbaz described in the Times. Instead, armed with more than $100 million in investment funding, Factual has largely pivoted to location data—that is, tracking the locations of users’ smartphones to target ads and to collect and analyze information about consumer behavior. Factual is now a quintessential surveillance capitalist concern. Its job is to understand not the world but how people move through it and what they do—and then monetize it.

Where does that data and analysis go? To whom is your information sold? It’s often a mystery because this vast, growing industry is largely unregulated. But we do know that some of it is bought by various tentacles of the military-industrial complex.

One of Factual’s partners is a company called X-Mode. In an investigation published on Monday, Vice’s Joseph Cox revealed that X-Mode collects data from numerous apps and sells some of it to U.S. military contractors. “Many of the users of apps involved in the data supply chain are Muslim,” Cox noted. Among those apps is Muslim Pro, a prayer reminder that has been downloaded almost 150 million times across various platforms, as well as a step-counter app and an app for following extreme weather. Another significant data broker with military ties is a company called Babel Street, which makes Locate X, a smartphone location-tracking product that has been used by U.S. Special Operations Command.

This is the new iteration of the surveillance state: a public-private partnership between tech companies and the government to track people en masse and without their consent. And there’s not a whole lot that everyday users like you can do about it. Nothing less than a combination of significant privacy legislation, vigorous regulation, and new business models can stop it.

Factual’s transformation is indicative of the gold rush in the location data industry. In April, it merged with Foursquare, originally an app fo

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