A report from Vice shared some concerning details of just how far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went during the era of lockdowns to ascertain whether people were being compliant with respective lockdowns and curfews, reportedly using phone location data on “tens of millions of phones in the United States.”

It’s no mystery that the modern cellphone, while convenient in a myriad of ways, is also a pocket-sized tracking device in many respects – and the federal government exploiting this reality is also nothing new. Back in December of 2020, the ACLU had filed a lawsuit against the federal government for “secretly purchasing and using our cell phone location information to locate and track people in the United States.”

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Of course, while the ACLU lawsuit was more peeved at the fact that entities like DHS, CBP, and ICE were making use of this location data purchased (instead of obtained via a warrant) in their efforts to enforce immigration law, what the CDC was doing is ostensibly a lot more nefarious.

According to the article in Vice, the CDC made use of this same sort of data – which was also purchased – to “perform analysis of compliance with curfews, track patterns of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation.”

Documents that were obtained by Motherboard found that in 2021, the CDC had outlined 21 different “potential CDC use cases for data” they purchased from data broker SafeGraph for $420,000. Apparently, in April of 2020, SafeGraph had initially made this data free for the CDC and other government entities “to play our part in the fight against the COVID-19 health crisis,” but when the free data soiree came to an end, the CDC coughed up the cash to have that data access for another year.

Cybersecurity researcher Zach Edwards reviewed these CDC documents, highlighting the troubling “open-ended” nature of the use cases the CDC proclaimed they’d use this data for.

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“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.’”

Aside from the CDC opting to purchase cellphone location data in 2021 to track the movements of individuals, the company that sold the data to the CDC hosts their own controversies.

In the simplest of terms, SafeGraph is a location data gathering tool that can be encoded into apps one might download on their phone. While the practice isn’t anything novel, per se, the fact that SafeGraph will sell that data to pretty much anyone shaking money at the company stoked serious concerns – so much so that Google banned SafeGraph from their app store and compelled all apps on their platform to remove the intrusive data location coding.

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