CDC Used Phone Location Data to Track Schools, Churches to See if Americans Followed COVID Lockdown Orders

CDC tracked “patterns of those visiting K-12 schools” as well as “visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses,” according to CDC documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act request.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paid for access to location data collected from tens of millions of phones in the United States to track COVID-19 protocol compliance among citizens, Vice’s Motherboard reports.
  • Documents obtained by Motherboard via a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request show that the CDC used COVID-19 as a reason to buy access to the data more quickly, but also that the agency intended to use the data for other purposes.
  • The CDC looked at location data, which is information regarding a device’s location, which in turn can then show where a person lives, works, and where they traveled.
  • The health agency also used the data to “Track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school and compare to 2019.”
  • The documents reveal how the CDC paid $420,000 for access to one year of data from the data broker SafeGraph, whose investors include Peter Thiel and the former head of Saudi intelligence among its investors. SafeGraph was banned from the Play Store in June.
Image of document obtained by Motherboard

Cybersecurity researcher Zach Edwards said after reviewing the documents that the CDC “seems to have purposefully created an open-ended list of use cases, which included monitoring curfews, neighbor to neighbor visits, visits to churches, schools and pharmacies, and also a variety of analysis with this data specifically focused on ‘violence.'”

  • “The sort of data the CDC bought was aggregated—meaning it was designed to follow trends that emerge from the movements of groups of people—but researchers have repeatedly raised concerns with how location data can be deanonymized and used to track specific people,” Motherboard reported.
  • Some of the data use cases conducted by the CDC were not explicitly linked to COVID-19, one reading, “Research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”