Compiled by Bhagyasri Chaudhury
Online fitness tracker Strava has published a “heatmap” showing the paths its users log as they run or cycle.
It appears to show the structure of foreign military bases in countries including Syria and Afghanistan, as soldiers move around inside.
The US military is examining the heatmap, a spokesman said.
Air Force Colonel John Thomas, a spokesman for US Central Command, told the Washington Post that the US military was reviewing the implications.
Strava said it had excluded activities marked as private from the map.
The data map shows 1 billion activities and 3 trillion points of latitude and longitude from “Strava’s global network of athletes”, according to the American company.
On the weekend, 20-year-old Australian university student Nathan Ruser noticed the map showed the locations and running routines of military personnel at bases in the Middle East and other conflict zones.
Users who record their exercise data on Strava have the option of making their movements public or private. Private data, the company said, has never been included.
The appearance of military bases on the heatmap suggests that large numbers of military personnel across the globe have been publicly sharing their location data.
The latest version of the map was released in November 2017, but the implications for service personnel were only raised over the weekend.
Nathan Ruser, an Australian university student who first highlighted the issue, said he came across the map while browsing a cartography blog last week.
“I just looked at it and thought, ‘oh hell, this should not be here – this is not good,'” Ruser told the BBC.
Nathan Ruser, a member of the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, pointed out on Twitter that it’s easy to look at the map and cross-reference it with the locations of known military installations, or pick out potential installations in combat zones, based on the data from users using the app. He posted several screenshots that he theorized were regular jogging routes, patrols, and locations of forward operating bases in Afghanistan.
Strava’s map doesn’t necessarily reveal the presence of military installations to the world: Google Maps and public satellite imagery have already done that. But where Google Maps shows the location of buildings and roads, Stava’s map does provide some additional information: it reveals how people are moving along those areas, and how frequently, a potential security threat to personnel. For example, in the following pair of images, one can easily match up roadways and structures on Google Maps to how people are moving around Fort Benning, Georgia.
“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. This particular track looks like it logs a regular jogging route. I shouldn’t be able to establish any Pattern of life info from this far away,” Ruser tweeted.
Ten thousand screw-ups
“In terms of strategic stuff, we know all the bases there, we know a lot of the positions, this will just be some nice ancillary data,” said Lafoy.
In Syria, known Coalition (i.e. US) bases light up the night. Some light markers over known Russian positions, no notable colouring for Iranian bases.
— Tobias Schneider (@tobiaschneider) January 27, 2018
“If the data is not actually anonymous, then you can start figuring out timetables and like some very tactical information, and then you start getting into some pretty serious issues,” Lafoy said.
“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,” the statement said.
“This is literally what 10,000 innocent individual screw-ups look like,” he said. “A lot if it is going to be a good reminder to security services why you do opsec (operational security) and why you do manage this sort of thing, and everyone is going to really hope it doesn’t get a couple people killed in the meantime.”
Limiting public profiles
“Furthermore, operational security requirements provide further guidance for military personnel supporting operations around the world. Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Harris.
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