How soldiers from Norway, Denmark and USA disclose who they are and where they exercise in war zones

NRK can reveal that a range of Western soldiers on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have divulged their identity via the mobile exercise app Strava.

Varmekart av Erbil og norske styrker i Irak

Can be identified: NRK has discovered the exercise profiles of 20 persons who have stayed on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the help of a map published by mobile training app Strava. 18 of them use their full name and the majority of them use photos of themselves.

Foto: Forsvaret/Strava

A Norwegian soldier on duty in Iraq has registered at least one of their jogging routes in the exercise app Strava. NRK has contacted the person concerned, who would not comment on the matter.

In recent days there has been much focus on American soldiers who may have revealed the location of military bases, for example in Niger, through the use of Strava.

Strava is an app where users can log and share their exercise routes. In November, Strava published a map that shows where the activity of their users is greatest. This showed great activity in a tiny area in Niger.

Les den norske versjonen av artikkelen: Slik røper soldater fra Norge, Danmark og USA hvem de er og hvor de trener i krigssoner

In many conflict and war-torn countries it is by and large military personnel that use Strava. This has allowed various media outlets to reveal military bases around the world by using the Strava map.

The map does not at first glance disclose information about individual users. NRK investigations have shown that it is relatively simple to find out which Strava users were at specific locations and when they were there. In this way NRK has identified Western military personnel serving abroad.

This can be done in real time. In this way it is possible to obtain a current and updated view of the movements of military personnel. NRK has chosen to carry out its search using data from a few months in the past.

18 people identified

Strava has a so-called “flyby” function. This allows users to see who has been exercising in the same area at the same time. It is precisely this function that we have used to reveal the identities of personnel from a range of countries.

NRK found the training profiles of 20 persons who have been stationed in military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. 18 of these use their full name in the app and most of them use photos of themselves. We uncovered their identities by creating GPS files of fictitious runs in the areas where a Norwegian presence has been known in the last two years. we uploaded these GPS files to Strava and used the flyby function to look for personnel who have been in the same area at the same time.

In addition to a Norwegian soldier, in just a few hours NRK found the identities of persons from

  • Denmark
  • USA
  • France
  • Netherlands
  • Italy
  • Great Britain

These people have been on military bases in Iraq or Afghanistan. NRK can with certainty identify three of them as military personnel.

The identities of such personnel are in many cases top secret, such as in Afghanistan where Norwegian Royal Marine commandos advise elite Afghan police.

In the vast majority of the profiles NRK has found, people have used their full name and personal photos of themselves. Some also include pictures of their children in their profiles.

By mapping these movements, those who desire can attack Western forces, and find patterns in where and when they exercise. NRK has chosen not to publish details about where and when the activities we have mapped took place.

«A matter of life and death»

Senior adviser Karsten Friis heads the research group for security and defence at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). He does not wish to comment directly about the Strava app, but emphasizes that the identity of Norwegian and other Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is clearly a sensitive matter.

Karsten Friis. Norsk Utenrikspolitisk Institutt.

LIFE AND DEATH: "It is very, very important to keep the identity of those who take part in sensitive operations hidden," says NUPI Senior Adviser Karsten Friis. He believes it can be a matter of life and death.

Foto: Christopher Olssøn

«You are part of an ongoing conflict and supporting one side by training them. Then you are a potential target for the opposition, in this case the Taliban or other rebels in Afghanistan, and corresponding groups in Iraq. Here secrecy is obviously very important», Friis says.

«How important is it to keep the identity of those taking part in sensitive operations secret»?

«It is a matter of life and death. It is that simple. In the worst case, if an identity is revealed, then that person or those closest to them, can land in a very difficult situation. It is very important», Friis says.

He says that the soldier in the field, or friends and family at home, can become vulnerable to threats if their identity becomes known.

«It applies more to those in the front than someone who drives a truck, but on the other hand, every soldier who takes part in a conflict is a potential target».

Norwegian Armed Forces: Has not contributed to increased risk

Oberstløytnant Ivar Moen

PROBLEMATIC: "If Strava makes it possible to identify persons in an area of operation with an identifiable name, this is problematic," says Lieutenant Colonel Ivar Moen.

Foto: Mats Grimsæth / Forsvarets Medisenter

Lieutenant Colonel Ivar Moen at Armed Forces Operative Headquarters writes in an email to NRK that the information about the Norwegian soldier does not pose a direct threat because the jogging route is from a few months ago.

«But if Strava makes it possible to identify persons in an area of operation with an identifiable name that should have been secret, or due to security precautions should have been anonymous, then this is problematic», Moen writes.

The Norwegian Armed Forces is now taking measures to make Norwegian soldiers more aware of their use of apps with location services.

Moen believes that Strava's publication has, in general, not created additional risk for Norwegian soldiers. This is due to, among other things, transparency around the location of Norwegian troops.

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