For the first time in history, the United States government is asking Google and Apple to hand over personal information from users of a single app. And – surprise! – it’s gun-related.
The Department of Justice is asking the tech giants to surrender information from at least 10,000 users of Obsidian 4, a tool used to control rifle scopes made by night-vision specialist American Technologies Network Corp (ATN), according to a report from Forbes.
The would-be data seizure comes as part of an investigation by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement into illegal exports of ATN’s scope. The company isn’t under investigation, according to a court order filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), but law enforcement officials have intercepted illegal shipments of the scope to Canada, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.
By obtaining telephone numbers, IP addresses, and use times of Obsidian 4 users, officials hope to track the networks that have been illegally exporting and receiving the scopes.
GunsAmerica reached out to ATN, who told us via email they were unaware of these allegations until Forbes published its article.
“ATN has not been contacted by the Department of Justice, Apple, or Google,” they said. “ATN will protect its customers and their identifying data to the absolute extent possible under U.S. law. And, it will not provide any information regarding the identity of our customers to any third party unless specifically required by law.”
Privacy rights experts told Forbes that federal agencies shouldn’t be able to scoop up data on individuals who haven’t been suspected of a crime. Worse still, the information they acquire could be used to open investigations on individuals totally unrelated to the original data request.
“The danger is the government will go on this fishing expedition, and they’ll see information unrelated to what they weren’t looking for and go after someone for something else,” Tor Ekeland, a privacy-focused lawyer, told Forbes.
Ekeland pointed to the U.S. government’s long history of widespread data collection and warned that the feds could apply this demand to other types of app, such as dating or health apps.
“There’s a more profound issue here with the government able to vacuum up a vast amount of data on people they have no reason to suspect have committed any crime. They don’t have any probable cause to investigate, but they’re getting access to data on them,” Ekeland added.
The government hasn’t named any particular group or individual under investigation. Online reports have claimed that the Taliban has used ATN’s cost-effective night vision optics, but it remains unclear exactly who the feds are hoping to track. If the court grants the order, Google and Apple will be asked to hand over the user information or fight the request in court.
Jake Williams, a former NSA analyst and now a cybersecurity consultant at Rendition Infosec, told Forbes the companies should fight to protect their users’ information.
“Google and Apple should definitely fight these requests as they represent a very slippery slope.” He said that if the request was granted it may also have a “serious chilling effect on how people use the Google and Android app stores.”
“The idea that Google could be compelled to turn over, in secret, all of my identifiers and session data in its possession because I downloaded an application for research is such a broad overreach it’s ridiculous.”