The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reportedly paid almost half a million dollars to randomly track millions of Americans through their cellphones during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vice News exposed that documents obtained by Motherboard showed the CDC bought a year's worth of location data from SafeGraph for $420,000. SafeGraph, whose investors include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, is reportedly a controversial company banned by Google from its Play Store last June 2021.
COVID Lockdown Obedience Tracked By Phone
The CDC bought the data for curfew monitoring and compliance during the lockdowns of 2021. The data also enabled the center to track whenever people visited K-12 schools, as well as, to gauge the effectiveness of the Navajo Nation policy's implementation.
Although the location data bought was for general use, researchers have raised that there is a possibility for CDC to track specific people and remove their anonymity. Location data normally shows where a person is, goes to, works, and lives. The data CDC bought specifically provides trends based on the movement of a group of people, which means it is aggregated.
The document quoted the CDC as saying that the data they bought from SafeGraph "has been critical 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 document was acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request. The CDC found that the document was useful for them in 21 different cases for comparison with pre-pandemic data they have.
One of which is helpful in the "examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases...Movement restrictions (Border closures, inter-regional and nigh curfews) to show compliance." Another use was to "track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school and compare to 2019; compare with epi metrics [Environmental Performance Index] if possible."
CDC's other uses of the acquired SafeGraph data include gauging the impact of state limitations on in-person contacts outside the household in comparison to 2019 and 2020 gathering density; following shifts in school decisions regarding potential illness and student mobility over time; hot spot detection in counties; and analysis of restaurant and bar closure in comparison to COVID-19 death rates and incidence; among others.
The Daily Mail said SafeGuard initially provided the location data freely to the public two years ago. The media outlet cited an April 2020 blog post that revealed the CDC used the data to get a better understanding of potential areas the coronavirus could spread the most. SafeGuard started charging for their data only last year.
Unconstitutional COVID Lockdown Monitoring
Cybersecurity Researcher Zach Edwards, after reviewing the document, told Vice in a chat interview that the CDC purposefully created the open-ended list of use cases. Edwards noted that the variety of analyses the data contained particularly focused on violence. He highlighted that the document specified places of worship, which meant tracking did not end at churches.
On the other hand, in a Fox News report, cybersecurity expert Morgan Wright warned about the "overarching surveillance" CDC did in tracking COVID-19 lockdown compliance. Wright pointed out that every application installed on mobile phones requires the user to enable the tracking of their information--from time, date, location, address book, and other personal information. Wright raised that a Virginia federal court judge ruled last March that the use of such geofence is unconstitutional since it is private data.
American Civil Liberties Union Speech, Privacy, and Technology Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley echoed Wright's sentiments and underscored to ABC 13 that the CDC shouldn't be spying on people.
"This is a very corrupt and shady industry that they are becoming a customer of, that collects people's location data without any kind of meaningful knowledge or consent basically spying on us," Stanley said.