CDC used cellphone location data to track COVID compliance in US: report

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used location data from the cellphones of millions of Americans to monitor COVID compliance according to a disturbing report that shows how little regard that the powerful national health bureaucracy has for civil liberties.

Vice News’ tech blog Motherboard reported that the CDC obtained access to the data which had been harvested from “tens of millions of phones” in the U.S. from a “highly controversial” company which was used to analyze compliance with restrictive measures put into place such as curfews but had plans to use the data for reasons that were unrelated to the pandemic according to smoking hot documents that were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The harvested information was used to “perform analysis of compliance with curfews, track patterns of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation”, according to Motherboard. “The documents also show that although the CDC used COVID-19 as a reason to buy access to the data more quickly, it intended to use it for more-general CDC purposes.”

In 2021, the CDC paid the data broker SafeGraph $420,000 for continued access to the data which the company had initially provided to the agency for free at the outset of pandemic.

The company whose investors include billionaire Peter Thiel and Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi intelligence was reportedly banned from the Google Play Store last year,

According to the documents procured through the FOIA request, the CDC said that SafeGraph’s data “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.”

One document that was obtained by the outlet is a list of 21 items labeled as “Potential CDC Use Cases for Data,” and includes “Track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school and compare to 2019,” “Prediction of hot spot counties due to influx of persons from nearby hot spots,” and “Monitoring adherence to state-level policies after arrival from another state.”

(Image: Screenshot/Motherboard)

However, the list also includes:

“Research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”

“Creation of user-defined queries and metrics of population mobility such as inferring mode of transport (e.g. walking, biking)

“Exposure to certain building types, urban areas and violence.”

Motherboard reports that another another section of the document “elaborates on the location data’s use for non-COVID-19–related programs.”

“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,” it reads. “The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities,” according to the outlet.

“The CDC did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment on which use cases it deployed SafeGraph data for,” Motherboard reported.



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