According to a new report, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked the phones of millions of Americans to see if they had complied with lockdown and vaccination efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vice said it obtained internal documents from the CDC showing that the federal agency used location data from cell phones to monitor visits to churches and schools as well as pharmacies for “vaccine monitoring.” The data also showed movement during curfews and visits between neighbors when people were encouraged to stay home, practice social distancing and avoid social gatherings.
According to the New York Post, SafeGraph, a “data broker” company backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, among other investors, initially provided data to the CDC for free during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the CDC reportedly paid $420,000 for continued access to the information.
CDC documents obtained by Vice showed “highly accurate insights relating to age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more” based on the data. The CDC said it wants to continue using the information for more than just epidemic monitoring, such as tracking “population migration before, during, and after natural disasters” and for parks interested in exercise and chronic disease prevention. And researching visits to gyms.
“Mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency wide use and will support multiple CDC priorities,” the agency wrote last year.
SafeGraph collects its data by licensing anonymized data from mobile devices that show where users live, work or travel. It then combines that data with other information, such as the geography and location of businesses, to measure foot traffic in, say, grocery stores.
Vice reports that the data purchased by the CDC was collected from groups of people to show trends — not track specific individuals — but has raised concerns about how anonymous the data is. According to the Post, a Catholic priest in Wisconsin was forced to resign last year after a news site “de-anonymized” data linked to his mobile device to show that he allegedly used Grindr. Used and visited gay bars.
Google reportedly banned all app developers on its Play Store from working with SafeGraph in June 2021 after critics raised privacy concerns, including Pro-Choice activists who suggested That data can be used to track women visiting abortion clinics.
SafeGraph spokesman Evan Barry told the Post that the firm has been “public” about the CDC’s use of its data since 2020 and denies being banned from Google’s App Store. The CDC confirmed that it obtained social mobility data from the company and paid for the one-year contract, which expired last month.