Pentagon Restricts Fitness And GPS Trackers For Deployed Personnel "Effective immediately, DoD personnel are prohibited" from using geolocation apps on mobile devices while in sensitive areas, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan wrote in a memo.
NPR logo Pentagon Restricts Fitness And GPS Trackers For Deployed Personnel

Pentagon Restricts Fitness And GPS Trackers For Deployed Personnel

After data from the Strava fitness app was shown to depict U.S. personnel movements at military bases, the Pentagon is restricting the use of geolocation devices. Strava Heat Map; Screenshot by NPR hide caption

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Strava Heat Map; Screenshot by NPR

After data from the Strava fitness app was shown to depict U.S. personnel movements at military bases, the Pentagon is restricting the use of geolocation devices.

Strava Heat Map; Screenshot by NPR

The Pentagon is banning the use of GPS on mobile devices in war zones and other sensitive locations, saying that fitness trackers and smartphone apps pose a "significant risk" to U.S. military personnel. The move bars deployed service members from using the devices in "operational areas" unless commanders have granted an exception.

"Effective immediately, DoD personnel are prohibited" from using geolocation apps and features, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan wrote in a memo sent Monday to all service leaders.

The restrictions were issued some six months after the location and movements of U.S. troops were included in a usage map published by the Strava fitness tracking company. The global map reflected more than 1 billion paths that the Strava app tracked — but patterns and locations of U.S. service members could be gleaned from zooming in on sensitive or secured areas.

Other services have similar usage maps, and the data they collect might be available to other app users or online.

"These geolocation capabilities can expose personal information, locations, routines, and numbers of DoD personnel," Shanahan wrote, "and potentially create unintended security consequences and increased risk to the joint force and mission."

The new Pentagon policy allows commanding officers to evaluate whether troops should be allowed to use geolocation technology if they deem it doesn't pose a threat — or if a mission requires the use of GPS apps. It also encouraged commanders of troops not in deployed areas to consider applying the ban.

The policy calls for training U.S. personnel to use the technology without exposing themselves or fellow service members — training that likely will include advice to turn off data-sharing options in fitness apps.

By placing a partial ban on the devices, the Pentagon is in a sense warning against overusing its own technology. It was the Department of Defense, after all, that developed and built the web of navigation satellites that became the NAVSTAR GPS system.

The military has maintained control of the GPS system. But Shanahan acknowledged that as a "rapidly evolving market" of geolocation devices and apps has changed how GPS is used, it has also increased the potential for security vulnerabilities.