If you had to make a list of the most common tech trends of the last few years, wearable devices would undoubtedly be right at the top. Thanks largely to the popularity of both smartwatches like the Apple Watch and dedicated fitness devices like Fitbit, global shipments for products in this category reached 33.9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2016 alone – a massive increase of 16.9% over the same period of time from the previous year.
Even more than that, wearable technologies, in general, are expected to generate a massive $95.3 billion in revenue per year as soon as 2021 – pointing to the fact that this is an already popular trend that shows absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon.Many commercially available activity and fitness trackers use GPS technology to not only track your current exercise but to give you access to features like historical reporting. You don’t just get to see how far you ran on any particular day – you can see where you were, where you were going, how long it took you to get there, how long you stayed, etc.
When you’re a home user practicing for an upcoming 5K run in the suburbs of a major city like Chicago, you probably don’t have too much to worry about as far as your privacy is concerned. When you’re using one of these devices on a military device in a war zone or a desert like Iraq, however, you can begin to get an idea of just how pressing this issue really is.
The United States Military and GPS Trackers: What Happened?
Just the fact that activity and fitness trackers are collecting this information isn’t necessarily a big deal. After all, they’ve got millions upon millions of users, so as long as that data is kept internally, there really aren’t sinister applications that officials would have to concern themselves with.
But what happens if that information is then published online and made freely available to anyone who knows where to look?
Sadly, that’s exactly what happened when a GPS tracking company called Strava published a “Global Heat Map” on the Internet, which used satellite information collected over a two-year period to map the location and movements of its subscribers.
Again – none of this is to say that Strava was intentionally trying to do harm to the men and women of the armed forces. But when Strava published its heat map of activity from more than 27 million users all over the world, it became clear fairly quickly that it also included information about both known and unknown military bases in certain dangerous parts of the world.
When users began examining the heat map, they realized that areas like Iraq and Syria were almost totally dark – with the sole exception of a few scattered points of activity. Upon zooming in on those areas of activity, it was instantly clear to anyone with a brain what they were looking at: United States military bases. When the global heat map reveals the location of an already known base, that’s one thing. When it reveals a sensitive site that was previously kept hidden from the world, that’s something else entirely.
The other important thing to understand about all of this is that there are a LOT of people to blame for this blunder. Soldiers should know that wearing an activity tracker that is constantly connected to a satellite that monitors their location as they move across confidential sites was a bad idea. Their superior officers should have also known this, forbidding the use of said devices in the first place. Strava should have DEFINITELY known this and should have either held back location information or not published their global heat map at all.
Officials for the US military say that they’re still looking into the broader implications of this heat map, but one thing is absolutely certain: All parties involved are going to be much, much more careful regarding the type of information that they store, collect and share moving forward.