CDC Tracked Millions of Phones To See if Americans Followed Lock Down Orders

Note: This article may contain commentary or the author's opinion.

Recently released documents from the CDC show that they plan to use phone data location to monitor schools and churches to see if people complied with COVID-19 lockdown orders. They wanted to use that data for many non COVID-19 purposes as well. The CDC bought access location data that was harvested from 10s of millions of phones in the United states in order to perform an analysis of compliance with curfews, people visiting K through 12 schools, and the effectiveness of lockdowns. The CDC used the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to buy access to the data quickly, although it intended to use it for non COVID-19 purposes.

Each cell phone typically has a GPS and that GPS records location data. This information can be lifted from your phone. It can show where a person works, lives, shops, or even what addresses they visit on a regular basis. The CDC bought aggregated data which means it was designed to follow trends which emerged from the movements of groups of people. However, researchers have stated that location data can be deanonymized and used to track specific individuals.

The documents reveal that the CDC intended to use location data from SafeGraph. It paid SafeGraph $420,000 for access to one year of data. SafeGraph has been banned by the Google Play store this June because it has Peter Thiel, which was the former head of Saudi intelligence, among its investors. The CDC stated that SafeGraph’s data was critical to their ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They noted that it had hourly monitoring of activity and curfew zones and detailed accounts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine uptake. Using the data that SafeGraph provided, the CDC could watch in real time as people were violating curfews and taking the vaccine pushed by the administration.

Motherboard obtained documents about the CDC’s use through the Freedom of Information act. The documents contain a list of what the CDC described as 21 different potentials use cases for the data. The list of potential use case data include;

  • The impact of state limitations on close person to person contact outside of the household. This would compare the gathering densities in 2019 to 2020.
  • The effect of large scale anti contagion policies on COVID-19.
  • The examination of the volume of mobile phones grouped into proximity with each other per month comparing 2019 to 2020. This is to see an impact on those orders and to project how much worse things would have been without the lockdown and bans.
  • Following shifts in school decisions overtime and its potential on student mobility and illness.
  • Track patterns of those visiting K through 12 schools by the school and compare that data with 2019.
  • Detecting counties with more mobile residents as they are more likely to be detected as hotspot counties.
  • Prediction of hot spot counties due to an influx of people from nearby hotspots.
  • To monitor adherence to state level policies to quarantines after arrival from another state.
  • To examine effectiveness of the quarantine policy on the Navajo Nation.
  • Examining COVID-19 vaccination rates, mobility, and incidents of positive cases at the county or sub-county level. This could also be applied to the flu and mask use.
  • Examination of the correlation of mobile patterns and the rise in COVID-19 cases as they relate to the opening and closing of schools, shelter in place orders, social distancing measures, mass gatherings such as concerts and places of worship, public transit stations, major destinations like grocery stores and parks, national shelter data for disasters, and movement restrictions.
  • Examination of mobility data for tracking school closures and school bus routes. Additionally, cell phone data around higher institutes of education during spring break. This can be broken down by county weekly numbers of visit to the schools and compared to the baseline.
  • Creation of user defined queries and metrics of mobility such as inferring the mode of transportation; for example, walking or biking.
  • Exposure to certain building types, urban areas, and violence.

What all these use cases have to do with COVID-19 remains unclear, especially when you take into consideration that the CDC wanted to know the mode of transportation that people were taking such as walking and or if they were exposed to violence. This does not seem to be specifically about COVID-19 in these instances. The CDC appears to be using this data for a catch all in use cases. That is to mean this data can be used for COVID-19 but it can also be used to study violence in certain areas, how many Americans actually bike to work, how many parents actually visit their kids school, how many people go to the grocery store weekly, and so much more. If the researchers are correct in that it this information can be deanonymized, then that means that we don’t have privacy anymore in our day-to-day lives whatsoever, as long as we carry a cell phone



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