CDC bought cell phone data to track lockdowns, vaccination: docs

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used location data from tens of millions of Americans’ phones to track compliance with lockdown orders and vaccination efforts, according to newly revealed documents. 

The CDC specifically monitored Americans’ visits to churches and schools, as well as “detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring,” internal documents from the federal agency obtained by Vice show. 

The CDC also reportedly tracked peoples’ movement during curfews and visits between neighbors.

A controversial “data broker” called SafeGraph initially provided the data to the CDC for free during the outbreak of the pandemic, the documents show. Then in 2021, the CDC reportedly hatched a deal to pay the company $420,000 for continued access.

The CDC argued in the documents that data from SafeGraph — which is backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, among other investors — helped give the agency “deeper insights into the pandemic as it pertains to human behavior.” 

The CDC paid a controversial data broker $420,000 for access to Americans’ location data.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Peter Thiel
Tech billionaire Peter Thiel is one of SafeGraph’s investors.
Getty Images

SafeGraph and the CDC did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the documents, which Vice obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Other health authorities including the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Illinois Department of Transportation have also been accused of tracking millions of people’s phones in recent years.

Data brokers like SafeGraph say that the information they sell represents the movements of groups of people rather than individual users. But critics have raised concerns about the data being less anonymous than data brokers claim. 

In one example, a top Catholic priest from Wisconsin was forced to resign last year after a Catholic news site was able to de-anonymize data linked to his cellphone to reveal that he had allegedly used Grindr and visited gay bars. It was not clear whether that data had been obtained from SafeGraph or another data broker. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC monitored Americans’ visits to churches and schools, as well as “detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring,” the documents show.
Getty Images

Pro-choice activists have also raised concerns that cellphone data from firms like SafeGraph can be used to track women who visit abortion clinics. 

Google banned all app developers on its app store from working with SafeGraph last year after critics raised privacy concerns.

In the internal CDC documents, the agency said it was able to glean “extremely accurate insights related to age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more” based on the cellphone data.   

The documents also show that the CDC wants to use the data for more than monitoring coronavirus efforts. 

The CDC wrote that one potential use of cellphone data would be “Research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”

Another would be tracking “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,” the agency wrote.

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