Justice Department orders Apple and Google to reveal the names and locations of gun scope app users

This is the first time American investigators have demanded personal data from users of a single Apple or Google app.

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In an unprecedented and privacy-invasive move, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has reportedly demanded that Apple and Google hand over the personal details of more than 10,000 users of the Obsidian 4 gun scope.

The app allows users of rifle scopes made by American Technologies Network (ATN) Corp to calibrate the scope and watch live streams from their iOS or Android device.

Forbes is reporting that the DOJ filed a court order on September 5 requesting the names, phone numbers, and IP addresses for anyone who downloaded the Obsidian 4 app between August 1, 2017 and the current date. The DOJ is also reportedly asking to know when users operated the app.

This would mean that if the request is granted, anyone who has downloaded but never used the app since August 2017 would be caught up in this data grab. Additionally, the DOJ would be able to use this information to identify, contact, and locate anyone who has downloaded the app within that timeframe.

Investigators could also use the information on when users operate the app to gain key insights into their lifestyle by learning when they use their gun scope, how often they use it, and how long they use it for. Most of the data that would be handed over if this request were granted is likely to be from innocent people who have nothing to do with the crimes being investigated.

Apple’s App Store doesn’t provide app install statistics but according to the Google Play Store, Obsidian 4 has been installed more than 10,000 times on Android devices meaning that more than 10,000 users will have their personal data handed over to the DOJ if Apple and Google comply with the order. It’s currently unclear whether Apple or Google will comply and both companies could fight the order.

Forbes says the data is being requested as part of an Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) department investigation into potential breaches of weapon’s export regulations with a specific focus on illegal exports of ATN’s scopes.

The investigators reportedly want this data so that they can find out where the app is in use and potentially locate the sites where illegal shipments of the scope are being made. Forbes adds that ICE has repeatedly intercepted illegal shipments of the scope to Canada, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong.

The order represents the first time that US investigators have requested personal data from all users of a single app from Apple and Google. It’s also the first time big tech companies have been asked to disclose information on so many thousands of people at once.

Privacy-focused lawyer Tor Ekeland described the order as a “fishing expedition” and warned of the dangers of the government being able to mass-collect data in this way:

“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 also warned that these types of court orders could start to be used to mass-collect data from users of dating or health apps – something that the Trump administration has recently considered as part of its proposal to curb gun violence by monitoring mental states via Alexa, the Apple Watch, and other smart devices.

This court order is the latest example of the US government using big tech dragnets to scoop up masses of data while investigating crimes. Last month, it was reported that Google gave the police data on all users within 100 feet of a bank robbery.

Governments and law enforcement officials have also started to use public social media data to profile and take action against gun users with a Connecticut man having his guns confiscated last month for sharing a meme on Facebook.

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