Pentagon restricts use of location-logging fitness trackers

Desiree Burns
August 7, 2018

"The rapidly evolving market of devices, applications, and services with geolocation capabilities (e.g., fitness trackers, smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and related software applications) presents significant risk to Department of Defense (DoD) personnel both on and off duty, and to our military operations globally", the order says. Geolocation, he said, "can expose information, locations, routines and numbers" of Defense Department personnel, and "potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission".

The Pentagon is seen in this aerial view in Washington.

It's up to ranking officers in less-sensitive areas to decide whether their charges can use Global Positioning System functions, based on the threat level in that location.

The memo does say that Combatant Commanders, who oversee U.S. troops around the world, could authorize the use of the devices, but only after conducting "a threat-based comprehensive Operations Security survey".

Following several incidents in which United States military bases and patrol routes have been compromised by fitness trackers used by soldiers deployed to sensitive locations overseas, the Pentagon banned using any gadgets that can pinpoint the location of U.S. personnel across the globe.

Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said it's a move to ensure the enemy can't easily target US forces. "It goes back to making sure that we're not giving the enemy an unfair advantage and we're not showcasing the exact locations of our troops worldwide", Manning said.

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In one recent instance, the fitness app Polar revealed locations of people exercising in secretive locations such as intelligence agencies, military bases and airfields, nuclear weapons storage sites, and embassies around the world, Bellingcat reported.

The announcement comes after news stories surfaced earlier this year that fitness apps such as Polar Flow and Strava have been inadvertently giving away locations and habits of USA service members on installations around the world. The map showed bright spots of activity in places such as Syria and Somalia, where there were otherwise few users of fitness trackers.

Outlines of US outposts in Syria and Iraq could be seen in the maps because many USA military personnel used fitness tracking devices, while few local people own them, according to media reports.

In May, Mattis opted for a more moderate step, allowing them on many bases and facilities while banning them from secure areas inside.

In other words, commanders may decide to restrict the use of geolocation capabilities on devices on areas of installations where "sensitive activities" are conducted, Harris said. But it also stopped short of banning the devices, and instead made clear that cellphones can still be used in common areas and other offices in the Pentagon if classified information is not present.

The Pentagon also said it will provide additional cybersecurity training to include the risks posed by the trackers and other mobile devices.

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