Blumenthal wants review of Google tracking of military members

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is calling on the Pentagon to look more broadly at whether electronic devices, such as Google's Android phone, are compromising sensitive information about U.S. service members' whereabouts.

Blumenthal's request comes in the midst of a review by the Pentagon of its policy on the use of smartphones and wearable devices such as exercise trackers by military personnel after the fitness tracking app Strava published a global "heat map" showing user activity including the locations and activities of service members at U.S. military bases.

As part of that review, Blumenthal and his colleague Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., want the Pentagon also to look at whether there are any "special risks" to service members using Android phones or Google services in terms of location tracking and how that information is stored by Google, whether in U.S. or foreign-based data centers.

"For service members using Android-based phones, there is a strong likelihood that most users are sending precise location and activity data to Google, and, by extension, all divisions of its parent company, Alphabet," the senators wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. "In an era of increasingly contested cyber domains, we could be unknowingly allowing our adversaries to map DoD networks for cyber intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and operational preparation of the environment."

The senators, in their letter, cite an article published recently by Quartz that details how sensitive information from Android users gets sent to Google, and how Google can use that information. The article points out that it can be difficult for Android users to opt out of sharing this information, and it's also not clear how to do so, or what exactly the user is opting in for. Google does provide online instructions for how to turn off location services.

"There are potentially very dangerous security lapses involved in the data collected and sent back to Google," Blumenthal said by phone Thursday. "Everything from GPS coordinates to Wi-Fi networks to the service member's ongoing activities."

Recent written statements from Google to Congress, which have not yet been made public, "expose" the risk of Android phones collecting data on Wi-Fi networks and sending that information back to Google, according to the senators.

"While Google has a 'no map' feature that disables a Wi-Fi network from being mapped, enabling it requires proactive opt-in from Wi-Fi network owners, many of whom may not be aware such an option exists," the senators said in a news release.

They asked Mattis whether the Pentagon regularly chooses this no-map feature and whether Google has notified the Defense Department that it can do this as a way to protect the location of its Wi-Fi networks.

j.bergman@theday.com

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