How a Fitness App’s Heat Map Uncovers Military Bases | NYT


In a remote part
of Afghanistan — a US military outpost. In the middle of Niger the outlines of an expanded
base and airstrip. In Syria, exercise routines and
possible patrolling routes on a base where American
special forces trained. By design, these secretive
locations are supposed to be difficult to spot. But a heat map posted
online by Strava, a company that tracks
people’s exercise routes, has inadvertently put these places
on public display for all the world to see. Many of the military
bases are already well known, like Bagram
and Kandahar air fields in Afghanistan. And the material
we’re revealing here doesn’t go beyond anything
that isn’t already available on the open web. But Strava’s platform has
drawn attention in a new way to the activity of military
personnel in far flung outposts and has laid bare some
loopholes in the security of military bases. How did this happen? Strava is an app
and social network that connects with
devices like Fitbit and is used to log workouts. It’s popular with U.S. soldiers
and others stationed abroad and the Pentagon has distributed
several thousand of them to its personnel. They use it to
track their exercise routines and everyday activities
like walks or patrols. But it also tracks
users’ locations, and in November 2017 the company updated
a map showing over 1 billion activities and
3 trillion GPS points. Twenty-year-old international
security student Nathan Ruser was the first to point out how
Strava’s map could compromise operational security. The map alone doesn’t
show the complete picture and its satellite
images are outdated, but it does tell
you where to look. So by combining it
with recent satellite imagery and other reporting, we
get a clearer sense of what’s happening on the ground. Take this new U.S. Air
Force Base in Sarrin, Syria. The map shows workouts are
walking routes — activities that provide a clear blueprint of the
base and by tracing the lines, we can follow soldiers to a
newly set up helicopter pad. Here’s what else we found. A new compound at a French
military site in Mali, Strava highlighted the camp
in the first place and no other mapping
platforms had marked the site. These U.S. forward operating
bases in Afghanistan. The location of a U.S. drone
base under construction in Agadez, Niger, and various
military facilities in Djibouti, where the U.S. is fighting
extremist groups in the Horn of Africa. And there are some
mysterious sites that we can’t yet identify. An area in the middle of the Nigerian desert. Two remote locations surrounded
by sand barriers in Yemen And here’s an unusual activity
in the desert in Mauritania that led us to a
suspected military site, including an extended
airstrip nearby. Strava also allows users
to share photos and workout routes. It’s basically
Facebook for athletes. This allows everyone
with an account to see who is working out
where. For example,
the “King of the Camp” run at a U.S. military base
in Iraq, or the
“Embassy River Wall Segment” in Baghdad’s green zone, or the perimeter base run
where more than 15 individuals stationed at a U.S. military base
challenge themselves. We found photos posted by users
from inside military bases and the online profiles
of several U.S. service members stationed at one
base near Mosul in Iraq. A Pentagon spokeswoman
said that this data release emphasized the
need for personnel to have situational awareness. And it’s assessing if any
additional training or guidance is required. There are some areas where
people presumably are not allowed to bring their
cellphones. User activity at C.I.A. and N.S.A. headquarters,
for instance, can be seen around the perimeters,
but not beyond certain points inside the structure. But out in the remote
corners of the world where the U.S. military
is operating, there’s plenty to see.

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