Military And Intelligence Personnel Can Be Tracked With The Untappd Beer App
Surprise! The beer-rating app Untappd can be used to track the location history of military personnel. The social network has over eight million mostly European and North American users, and its features allow researchers to uncover sensitive information about said users at military and intelligence locations around the world.
For people in the military, neither drinking beer nor using social media is newsworthy on its own. But Untappd users log hundreds, often thousands of time-stamped location data points. These locations are neatly sorted in over 900 categories, which can be as diverse and specific as “botanic garden.” “strip club,” “gay bar,” “west-Ukrainian restaurant,” and “airport gate.” As the result of this, the app allows anyone to trace the movements of other users between sensitive locations — as well as their favorite bars, hotels, restaurants, neighbourhoods, and, sometimes, even private residences.
Examples of users that can be tracked this way include a U.S. drone pilot, along with a list of both domestic and overseas military bases he has visited, a naval officer, who checked in at the beach next to Guantanamo’s bay detention center as well as several times at the Pentagon, and a senior intelligence officer with over seven thousand check-ins, domestic and abroad. Senior officials at the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force are included as well.
Cross-referencing these check-ins with other social media makes it easy to find these individuals’ homes. Their profiles and the pictures they post also reveal family, friends, and colleagues.
For reasons explained further below, it is difficult to assess the total number of individuals that can be traced this way. Yet sensitive locations such as military bases can easily have hundreds of unique visitors, and beyond Europe, North America, and the Middle East, military users can be found at locations as varied as Greenland, Niger, and South Korea.
The activity level varies per location. Some locations currently have a lot of active users while other locations were briefly used years ago, such as Blackwater / XE’s location in North Carolina. Even the inactive locations can still reveal a lot of data about the visitors and their networks.
Below are examples of a location page and a user’s venue history. On the left is the venue page for Ramstein air base, showing nearly 600 unique visitors that have logged over 2600 beers. On the right, we see a small portion of a single user’s check-in history as he travelled through Afghanistan, revealing his visits to the United States embassy bar in Kabul, the Duck and Cover, among other places. The user also has thousands of other check-ins spread over hundreds of different locations.
Above: Ramstein Air Base’s venue page within the Untappd app. Right: A part of a user’s check-in history
The only requirement to access this information, i.e. to find individuals working at various military and intelligence organizations and track their general whereabouts, is a little bit of digging in Untappd’s data and cross-referencing it with other social media.
At first glance Untappd’s data might seem useless as its location data is not strict, meaning users are free to check in to locations from up to 60 miles away. This is a problem at well-known spots in more populated areas. For example, the NSA and MI6 headquarters have many check-ins from users who were in the vicinity, but who were likely not inside these buildings.
Moreover, it can be difficult to find locations of interest, ass Untappd’s search functions only list venues such as hotels, bars, and restaurants. You cannot search for locations that are tagged primarily as “government building” or “military base,” for example. Complicating matters further is that one location can have multiple pages, and it’s sub-locations can have pages as well, making it difficult to assess how many users are checking in there in total. For example, there are two pages for “The Pentagon,” but also pages for the Pentagon’s courtyard, E-ring, and other areas. These locations are hidden in Untappd’s search functions.
Above: Untappd’s map view when searching for ‘The Pentagon’. Right: Untappd’s search results when searching for ‘The Pentagon’
Given these issues, how can one still manage to find sensitive government locations as well as the individuals who actually visited them?
Here is how this works:
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