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REVEALED: CDC bought cell phone location data to track COVID-19 public health order compliance

The CDC said the data "has been critical for ongoing response efforts, such as hourly monitoring of activity in curfew zones or detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring."

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Hannah Nightingale Washington DC
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Documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revealed that the government agency bought access to cell phone location data to analyze a wide variety of issues, but most notably, compliance with public health orders issued during the pandemic.

In CDC documents obtained by Motherboard, it outlines 21 "potential CDC use cases for data."

These include pandemic-related uses like "the effect of large-scale anti-contagion policies on the COVID-19 pandemic," "Examination of COVID-19 vaccination rates, mobility, … at the county or sub-county level (this could also be applies to flu and mask use)," and "examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases" which looks at things like school openings or closures, shelter in place orders, and movement restrictions.

According to Motherboard, the CDC reportedly paid $420,000 for a year’s access to this data through SafeGraph, a location data firm whose investors include Peter Thiel and the former head of Saudi intelligence, and which had been banned from the Google Play Store last June.

According to Motherboard, SafeGraph obtained its location data by offering app developers at a cost a code to embed in their programs, that funnels the data to the company.

The CDC’s document said SafeGraph’s data "has been critical for ongoing response efforts, such as hourly monitoring of activity in curfew zones or detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring." The documents date from 2021.

One section of the document goes on to state the data’s usage for other non-COVID-19–related programs.

"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 green spaces, physical activity and mode of travel, and population migration before, during, and after natural disasters," it reads. "The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities."

The data was reportedly derived from at least 20 million active cellphone users per day in the US.

SafeGraph, according to Motherboard, sells both raw location data or packaged products of data, with the CDC purchasing access to "US Core Place Data," "Weekly Patterns Data," and "Neighborhood Patterns Data."

"SafeGraph offers visitor data at the Census Block Group level that allows for extremely accurate insights related to age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more," one of the CDC documents reads.

In April of 2020, SafeGraph announced in a blog post that it would be offering foot traffic data for free to nonprofit organizations and both local and federal government agencies.

The CDC later purchased access to the data due to SafeGraph no longer offering the data for free, the documents reportedly state.

"CDC has interest in continued access to this mobility data as the country opens back up. This data is used by several teams/groups in the response and have been resulting in deeper insights into the pandemic as it pertains to human behavior," one section reads.

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