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CDC spent taxpayer dollars to buy cellphone location data to track Americans during COVID pandemic

Shocking documents reveal the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention purchased cellphone data on millions of Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure they were complying with pandemic-related restrictions.

What are the details?

Motherboard, a technology news website, reported Tuesday that CDC documents show the agency spent $420,000 last year to purchase cellphone location data harvested from tens of million of Americans.

The news website obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The data was purchased from SafeGraph, which Motherboard described as a “highly controversial data broker.” The data was “derived from at least 20 million active cellphone users per day across the United States” and provided “extremely accurate insights related to age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more.” The purchase gave the CDC access to the data for one year.

Some of the reasons the CDC wanted the data include:

To “[t]rack patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school”;
“Monitoring adherence to state-level policies to quarantine after arrival from another state”;
To track the “correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases” in schools, mass gatherings (concerts, sporting events, and places of worship), public transportation stations, etc., locations with shelter-in place orders, and locations with “movement restrictions (Border closures, inter-regional and nigh curfews) to show compliance”;
To examine “the effectiveness of public policy on [the] Navajo Nation.”

When purchasing the data, the CDC placed an “urgent” request because of the pandemic. But documents show the CDC wanted to use the data for purposes completely unrelated to the pandemic.

“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 greenspaces, physical activity and mode of travel, and population migration before, during, and after natural disasters,” one of the documents said, Motherboard reported.

Anything else?

Last year, Google banned SafeGraph from the Google Play Store, the platform’s application store, which meant that SafeGraph’s data collection code had to be removed from applications available in the app store.

Motherboard reported that SafeGraph likely violated a Google policy that prohibits Google’s technology firms from paying “app developers to include their data harvesting code and then sell the collected data to companies or government agencies.”