The Centers for Disease Control bought location data for tens of millions of Americans’ cell phones to analyze “compliance” with COVID recommendations, targeting people visiting schools and churches, according to a new report.
And then it moved quickly to buy more data, for “general CDC purposes,” explained the report assembled from information obtained by Motherboard and published at Vice.
Writer Joseph Cox explained, “Newly released documents showed the CDC planned to use phone location data to monitor schools and churches, and wanted to use the data for many non-COVID-19 purposes too.”
Said the report, “Location data is information on a device’s location sourced from the phone, which can then show where a person lives, works, and where they went. The sort of data the CDC bought was aggregated—meaning it was designed to follow trends that emerge from the movements of groups of people—but researchers have repeatedly raised concerns with how location data can be deanonymized and used to track specific people.”
The documents show a strategy by the CDC to obtain location details from SafeGraph, and paying the company $420,000 for access to a year’s worth of data on, among others, Peter Thiel.
The company has been embroiled in controversy and Google has banned it from the Play Store, the report said.
The CDC claimed the information was important “for ongoing response efforts, such as hourly monitoring of activity in curfew zones or detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring.”
“The CDC seems to have purposefully created an open-ended list of use cases, which included monitoring curfews, neighbor to neighbor visits, visits to churches, schools and pharmacies, and also a variety of analysis with this data specifically focused on ‘violence,'” explained Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher, in the report.
Motherboard reported getting the documents through a Freedom of Information Act procedure.
They reveal the CDC’s description of different “potential” uses of the data to include tracking patterns of those visiting K-12 schools, examining the mobility patterns amid the rise in COVID-19 cases, and examining the “effectiveness of public policy on Navajo Nation.”
The report said during the pandemic, cell phone location data was viewed as a “tool,” and even groups like the New York Times used it to show where people were traveling as lockdowns started to lift.
The report warned that the pandemic was a flashpoint in a “culture war” that includes significant concerns over government’s ability to control people and actions through mask and vaccine mandates and more.
There also have been concerns raised that vaccine passports could be used as a surveillance tool.
“Against that inflamed backdrop, the use of cell phone location data for such a wide variety of tracking measures, even if effective for becoming better informed on the pandemic’s spread or for informing policy, is likely to be controversial. It’s also likely to give anti-vaccine groups a real-world data point on which to pin their darkest warnings,” the report suggested.
Data purchase paperwork described some actions as “an URGENT COVID-19” purchase plan, while others were not specifically tied to the nationwide disaster created by the Chinese virus.
And CDC stated openly it wanted to use the information for additional “non-COVID-19” programs.
The report said the CDC declined to respond to requests for comment.
But it explained SafeGraph sells a variety of cell phone data details.
It said researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation also have obtained documents regarding the CDC’s purchase of various location data from another company, Cubeiq.
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