The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked millions of Americans’ phones to see if they complied with lockdowns and vaccination efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new report.
Vice said it obtained internal documents from the CDC that show the federal agency used location data from cell phones to monitor visits to churches and schools, as well as to 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, the “data broker” company SafeGraph backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, among other investors, initially provided the data to the CDC for free during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the CDC allegedly paid $420,000 for continued access to the information.
The CDC documents obtained by Vice showed “extremely accurate insights related 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 pandemic monitoring, such as tracking “population migration before, during, and after natural disasters” and researching visits to parks and gyms for interest in exercise and chronic disease prevention.
“The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities,” the agency wrote last year.
SafeGraph gathers its data by licensing anonymized data from mobile devices showing where users live, work or travel to. It then combines that data with other information, such as geography and locations of businesses to, say, measure foot traffic in grocery stores.
Vice reports the data the CDC bought was aggregated to show trends from groups of people — not track specific individuals — but concerns have been raised 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 he allegedly used Grindr 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 from pro-choice activists who suggested data can be used to track women who visit abortion clinics.
SafeGraph spokesperson Evan Barry told the Post that the firm has been “public” about the CDC’s use of its data since 2020 and denied being banned from Google’s app store. The CDC confirmed it obtained social mobility data from the company and paid for a year-long contract, which ended last month.