CDC Used Taxpayer Money to Purchase Cellphone Location Data to Track Americans

Shocking new documents have revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) purchased cellphone data on millions of Americans during the COVID pandemic to track them in order to ensure that they were complying with COVID restrictions.

The technology news website Motherboard reported on Tuesday that CDC documents show the agency spent $420,000 in 2021 to buy cellphone location data that had been harvested from tens of millions of Americans.

Motherboard obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The CDC bought the data from a company called SafeGraph, which Motherboard described as a “highly controversial data broker.”

According to the documents, 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 allowed the CDC to have access to the data for one year.

Some of the reasons cited as to why 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 it purchased the data, the CDC placed an “urgent” request, citing the pandemic as the reason. But the newly released documents reveal that the CDC actually wanted to use the data for other purposes that were 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, according to reporting from Motherboard.

This news is especially concerning, considering the controversial data broker’s recent history. The company that the CDC purchased the data from, SafeGraph, was banned from the Google Play Store by Google in 2021, which meant that SafeGraph’s data collection code needed to be removed from applications available in the app store.

To get this data to give to the government, Motherboard reports 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.”