In an unprecedented federal data grab, the US Department of Justice has called on Google and Apple to disclose the names and data of thousands of users of a gun scope mobile app, reportedly as part of a probe into illicit exports.
Federal investigators are demanding the tech giants hand over information on anybody who downloaded Obsidian 4, a mobile app that allows users to link up their smartphone with specially-made gun scopes, according to a court order filed on Thursday and seen by Forbes before it was sealed.
If the tech firms comply with the feds’ dictate, the disclosure would reveal the names, phone numbers and other data of over 10,000 people – certainly many with no connection to crime – in a massive breach of privacy. The data furnished by Google and Apple would effectively “dox” the thousands of users of the app, revealing their identities without permission.
A page on Google’s Android app store shows Obsidian 4 has been downloaded over 10,000 times, though Apple’s own app store does not include download figures, meaning the number of people exposed in the data dump could be significantly higher.
The court order was prompted by an ongoing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigation into illegal exports of weapons and other gun-related gear, including the specially-designed “smart scope” produced by American Technologies Network (ATN), the same firm behind the Obsidian 4 app.
While ATN is not directly implicated in the investigation, ICE wants to find out who is using the company’s scope, and in what countries. International sale of the scope in question is controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation, and ICE has made repeated attempts to block exports to buyers who lack the proper licenses, including in Hong Kong, Canada and the Netherlands.
The DOJ’s order, which will apply to American users of the scope app, has some privacy advocates horrified.
“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 lawyer who focuses on privacy issues, told Forbes.
Ekeland added that the US government has a poor track record when it comes to data privacy, and warned that even broader court orders could soon come down the pike demanding yet more sensitive information, such as data from health or dating apps.
Edin Omanovic, who heads up the State Surveillance program for the watchdog group Privacy International, said the move sets a risky precedent and will allow the state to gobble up “huge amounts of innocent people’s personal data,” adding that “Such orders need to be based on suspicion and be particularized – this is neither.”