The cell phones of tens of millions of Americans were tracked by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials, who used location data to ensure compliance with COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccination campaigns according to Vice, which was able to obtain internal documents through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).1
The CDC used the cell phone data to determine whether lockdown quarantine curfews and travel restrictions were complied with, to track people entering K-12 public schools, and to monitor the effectiveness of COVID response policies, particularly within the Navajo Nation.2
The cell phone data was given to the CDC by the databroker, SafeGraph, at first for no cost. Starting in 2021, the CDC paid the company $420,000 to continue to receive cell phone data. SafeGraph is backed by billionaire and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel3 and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, among other investors.4
CDC’s Cell Phone Tracking Raises Privacy Concerns
Safegraph defends its action by claiming that the data they sold to the CDC is representative of large groups of people rather than individual people, which prevents any issues with user privacy. However, after privacy concerns were raised, Google banned all of its app developers from working with SafeGraph last year.5
The location data provided to the CDC was aggregated location data designed to show movement trends among a group of people such as where they live, work and where they go. However, there is concern that the data can be used to track a specific person by deanonymizing the data.6 Supporting the concern that aggregate data could be used to track individuals, SafeGuard has said that they will no longer sell location data belonging to people who went to health clinics that provide abortion services.7
CDC’S Cell Phone Tracking Data Also Used for Non-COVID Purposes
Using the COVID pandemic as the primary reason for purchasing the data on an urgent, emergency-use basis, the CDC conceded that the data was intended to be used for other non-pandemic response purposes, as well.
The CDC said:
CDC also plans to use mobility data and services acquired through this acquisition to support non-COVID-19 programmatic areas and public health priorities across the agency, including but not limited to travel to parks and green spaces, physical activity and mode of travel, and population migration before, during, and after natural disasters. The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities.8
Cyber security researcher Zach Edwards said:
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.’… In my opinion the SafeGraph data is way beyond any safe thresholds [around anonymity].9
Internal documents obtained under FOIA revealed the CDC has at least 21 intended uses for the cellular data pertaining to COVID related matters, such as “implementation and cancelation of community mitigation measures and its impact on case and fatality rates;” analysis of bar and restaurant closing as compared to COVID cases and deaths; detecting hot spot locations; monitoring quarantine compliance; monitoring COVID and influenza vaccination rates and mask compliance; monitoring “points of interest,” such as pharmacies or vaccine distribution centers. However, the CDC apparently also wants to track cell phones for non-COVID uses, such as “research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention visits to parks, gyms or weight management businesses,” and exposure to violence in urban areas, among other uses.10
The CDC also bought cellular data from a Cubeiq on an emergency basis, reportedly because of COVID, but documents showed the federal health agency planned on using the data for non-COVID related purposes, as well.11
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1 Wayt T. CDC bought cellphone data to track vaccination, lockdown compliance: report. New York Post May 4, 2022.
2 Housman D. REPORT: CDC Tracked Phone Data To Determine If Americans Followed Lockdown Guidance. Daily Caller May 4, 2022.
3 Brier E, Kenrick C, Shrivastava, R et al. The Midas List: Top Tech Investors (2022). Forbes 2022.
4 Wayt T. CDC bought cellphone data to track vaccination, lockdown compliance: report. New York Post May 4, 2022.
6 Cox J. CDC Tracked Millions of Phones to See If Americans Followed COVID Lockdown Orders. Vice May 3, 2022.
7 SafeGraph ends abortion clinic data sharing; fertility apps stand by privacy notices. Iapp May 9, 2022.
8 Cox J. CDC Tracked Millions of Phones to See If Americans Followed COVID Lockdown Orders. Vice May 3, 2022.
9 Jose A. New Documents: CDC Tracked Millions of Americans’ Compliance with COVID Rules Using Cell Phone Location Data. The Western Journal May 3, 2022.
10 Cox J. CDC Tracked Millions of Phones to See If Americans Followed COVID Lockdown Orders. Vice May 3, 2022.