Fitness tracking app divulges secret military movements

In 2013 alone, the Pentagon distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of a pilot program to fight obesity in the ranks.

Matt Saintsing
January 29, 2018 - 11:09 am

photo by: Sgt. Ferdinand Detres/10th Press Camp HQ

Physical exercise can be one of the best ways to get through the monotony of a deployment. Maintaining, and exceeding, physical fitness standards is a crucial part of military culture and can save someone’s life in.

Running the perimeter of smaller, lesser known bases, however, may have unintentionally exposed U.S. military personnel to huge security risks, thanks to modern technology.

Strava, a fitness application that records and charts exercise habits of people who use devices—like Fitbit—is revealing secret locations of U.S. military activities to the world.

The phenomenon was first identified by Nathan Ruser, a 20-year-old Australian student and analyst for the Institute for United Conflict Analysts, who noted on Twitter on Saturday that the tracking “looks very pretty, but not amazing for Op-Sec.”

“US Bases are clearly identifiable and mappable.”

Strava, a San Francisco-based company who calls itself “The Social Network for Athletes,” has 27 million users worldwide who access the app trough wearable fitness devices, like Fitbit and Jawbone.

The Global Heat Map, published by Strava, uses GPS information to map movements of its subscribers over a two-year period, by revealing areas of activity. At first glance, large swaths of North America and Europe glow bright due to the high amount of activity.

In war zones where the U.S. military are deployed, however, the map becomes pitch-black, except for the illuminated small amounts of activity. Zooming in on certain areas in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, outlines presumable U.S. military bases and other sensitive sites.

That’s because some American soldiers use fitness trackers and their movements are populating the Heat Map.

To make matters worse, this may have been an unintended, yet self-inflicted, wound since the Pentagon has encouraged the use of wearable fitness trackers, like Fitbit, among service members. In 2013 alone, the Pentagon distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of a pilot program to fight obesity in the ranks.

The Global Heat Map has been online since November 2017, but conversations on the internet started lighting up only after Russia discovered the map from a blog, and decided to investigate more closely.

Of the areas that may have exposed danger to American military personnel are a suspected U.S. base in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Ben Taub of the New Yorker, found several suspected American bases in the Sahel region of Africa.

The data provides unique insight to anyone who seeks to attack U.S. troops, or its bases, around the world. Data retrieved can easily detect patterns of activity, and shows the perimeter of some bases. Since most people who use fitness trackers tend to keep them on all day, the maps reveal more than just individual exercise rituals.

"Annual training for all DoD personnel recommends limiting public profiles on the internet, including personal social media accounts," Pentagon spokesperson Susan Gough told Connecting Vets.

"Furthermore, operational security requirements provide further guidance for military personnel supporting operations around the world. Recent data releases emphasize the need for situational awareness when members of the military share personal information."

Brighter areas surrounded by a sea of black may indicate where American troops live, eat, and work, and can suggest possible times and targets for attackers.

Strava issued a brief statement saying they are “committed to working with military and government officials to address sensitive areas that might appear.”