The CDC Bought Americans’ Cellphone Data to Track Compliance with Pandemic Rules
By Yehudit Garmaise
It’s not your imagination: the CDC was watching you throughout the pandemic.
According to the New York Post, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used location data from tens of millions of Americans’ phones to gauge compliance with lockdown orders and vaccination efforts.
The CDC’s internal documents reveal that the agency reportedly tracked the distances Americans covered during curfews and visits among neighbors in methods SafeGraph spokespeople say were not hidden from view.
“We’ve been public about the CDC’s use of our data since 2020,” said SafeGraph spokesperson Evan Barry.
In particular, the CDC took special care to monitor Americans’ visits to schools, houses of worship, and pharmacies that provided vaccines.
SafeGraph, a “data broker” provided the data to the CDC for free for a year when the pandemic hit, however, in 2021, the CDC reportedly offered to pay the company $420,000 for continued access, documents reveal.
The CDC argued that harvesting cell phone data provided the agency with “deeper insights into the pandemic as it pertains to human behavior.”
Data brokers often claim that the information they sell does not report on individuals, but rather “the movements of groups of people,” although many critics have raised privacy concerns about the practice of data harvesting.
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.”
Last year, Google banned all app developers on its app store from working with SafeGraph, according to Vice.com.
The CDC wants to continue to use Americans’ cellphone data to track other “research points of interest,” such as “physical activity and chronic disease prevention” by tracking cell phones users’ visits to parks, gyms, and weight management businesses,” the agency’s documents said.