Is wearable tech a concern for national security?

Our men and women in uniform have a tough job to do but one thing they do not need to worry about is exercise. The daily rigors of being a soldier keep them in good shape. Surely though some of them have wondered exactly how many miles they have walked in a day? Some of those soldiers turned to wearable tech to find out and that decision may have some unintended consequences.

Wearable tech, particularly fitness apps track how many steps you take to help you quantify the number of calories that you are burning and how much you travel. Some apps use GPS to help track you. One app in particular called Strava has published to the Internet heatmaps of their users travel patterns. It used the GPS on a smartphone to track the user and provided a heatmap of their route. The heatmap is basically the same concept as it is with your Nicely Done Sites webpage. It marks where people go and colors those areas by the number of visits to determine which places are the most popular. The heatmaps are updated yearly and published on the Internet. The last update was in November of 2017.

There was just one problem. An Australian student decided to look through these heatmaps and found one corresponding to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. It shows what is probably the patrol routes for soldiers around the perimeter of the base and also outside of the base. Now the layout of the base is no secret. It’s available on Google Earth and other satellite imaging programs. But since it did show the most commonly walked routes around the base and also the least visited routes around the base that could provide valuable information to our enemies. Bagram is no stranger to our enemies as it has been the target of several suicide bombers in recent years.

It does seem like this could all have been avoided.The soldiers left the option to collect the data and sent it to Strava. The data of 27 million users around the world was collected and allowed users to compare their information with users of other wearable tech options like FitBit. In all Strava users walked, ran, biked or drove 27 billion miles in 2015 thru 2017. User information is included from every nation in the world, including even North Korea. The app makes out of the way places stand out. Places like Barrow or Nome in Alaska or routes like the Dalton Highway visually stick out. Such was the same at Bagram.

Enough information was published to determine regular patrol routes around Bagram but these heatmaps are not the only way of tracking military personnel. Russian soldiers have been tracked in both Syria and Ukraine using geolocation information from their phones and from analyzing their social media accounts. In many countries it is easy to find a military base. The app is extremely popular in the west but nowhere near as popular in hotbed nations or territories like Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and even the Falkland Islands. Each of these can produce small bits of information that can be used to piece together something for our enemies or even for our intelligence services.

So can anything be done? Sure, all the soldiers need to do is to adjust their privacy settings or opt out of collecting information. The student who discovered this brought this to the public for exactly this reason. He wanted to make sure this information was not revealed to the public. There is some information that needs to remain secret and that included even something as mundane as a patrol route at an out of the way base in a remote country. The Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Great Britain are already reviewing their procedures. In fact the Pentagon was already aware as no heatmap information exists within the Pentagon itself. The MoD has not been so active and a heatmap does exist with limited data within GCHQ in Cheltenham. This kind of ban has probably already been implemented at bases and installations around the world.

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