An interactive map posted on the internet that shows the whereabouts of people who use fitness devices such as Fitbit also reveals highly sensitive information about the location and activities of soldiers at U.S. military bases, in what appears to be a major security oversight.
The Global Heat Map, published by the GPS tracking company Strava, uses satellite information to map the location and movements of subscribers to the company’s fitness service over a two-year period, by illuminating areas of activity.
Strava says it has 27 million users around the world, including people who own widely available fitness devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone and Vitofit, as well as people who directly subscribe to its mobile phone application. The map is not live — rather it shows a pattern of accumulated activity between 2015 and September last year.
Most parts of the United States and Europe, where millions of people use some form of fitness tracker, show up on the map as a blaze of light, because there is so much activity.
In warzones and deserts such as Iraq and Syria, the heatmap becomes almost entirely dark — except for a few scattered pinpricks of activity. Zooming in on those brings into focus the locations and outlines of known U.S. military bases, as well as of other unknown and potentially sensitive sites — presumably because U.S. soldiers and other personnel are using fitness trackers as they move around.
Air Force Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Sunday the U.S. military is looking into the implications of the map.
The U.S. military did not respond to a question about what the regulations are regarding use of fitness tracking apps. But the Pentagon has encouraged the use of Fitbits among military personnel and in 2013 distributed 2,500 of them as part of a pilot program to battle obesity.
The Global Heat Map was posted online in November 2017, but the information it contains was only publicized on Saturday after a 20-year-old Australian student stumbled across it. Nathan Ruser, who is studying international security and the Middle East, found out about the map’s existence from a mapping blog and was inspired to look more closely, he said, after a throwaway comment by his father, who observed that the map offered a snapshot of “where rich white people are” in the world.
“I wondered, does it show U.S. soldiers?” he said, and immediately zoomed in on Syria. “It sort of lit up like a Christmas tree.”
He started tweeting about his discovery, and the internet also lit up, as data analysts, military experts and former soldiers began scouring the map for evidence of activity in their areas of interest.