CDC mined tracking data on 20+ million US citizens during pandemic, report shows

by Chris Lange

Chris Lange, FISM News


The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) paid a controversial data-mining company for unfettered access to phone location-tracking data of over 20 million Americans to monitor compliance with COVID-19 lockdowns, as first reported by tech company Motherboard-VICE

The newly released documents obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show that the CDC specifically wanted to use the phone location data of private citizens to monitor schools and “places of worship” placed on lockdown orders, track curfew compliance, and oversee visits to K-12 schools, among other things. 

Location data is information stored on mobile devices that shows where a person lives, works, and travels. The data harvested by the CDC was aggregated, meaning that it tracked movements of groups of people rather than individuals. Numerous researchers, however, have raised concerns that the data can easily be used to surveil individuals as well. 

The documents reveal that the CDC in 2021 paid controversial data broker SafeGraph nearly half a million dollars for access to a year’s worth of location data. Among SafeGraph’s investors are the former head of Saudi intelligence and political activist Peter Thiel. Google banned SafeGraph from its Play Store in June.

The CDC said in the documents that the data it was able to mine from SafeGraph “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 further reveal that the federal health agency also planned to use the data for purposes that went well beyond the scope of COVID-19 mandate compliance.

Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who reviewed the documents, told Motherboard that “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.’” 

Within the documents is a list of what the CDC describes as “potential CDC use cases for data.” Among its 21-line items are the following:

  • “Track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school and compare to 2019; compare with epi metrics [Environmental Performance Index] if possible;” and
  • “Examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases […] Movement restrictions (Border closures, inter-regional and night curfews) to show compliance.”

The CDC also planned to use the surveillance data well beyond the scope of the pandemic, including to monitor “research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”

A portion of the document reads, “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. The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities.”

“In my opinion the SafeGraph data is way beyond any safe thresholds [around anonymity],” Edwards said, citing one example in which a search result using SafeGraph’s data portal yielded detailed information about a specific doctor’s office, which he said shows the extent to which the surveillance can be finely tuned.  

At the onset of the pandemic, several media organizations, including the New York Times, used cell phone location data provided by organizations in the industry to track movement patterns amid lockdowns and make the case that minority communities were being underserved, in terms of being able to shelter in place.  

The unprecedented authority wielded by the CDC and state and local governments throughout the pandemic sparked concerns among civil liberty watchdogs and conservative lawmakers that authorities would use their newfound powers to surveil private citizens, particularly in enforcing vaccine mandates. 

The CDC did not respond to several requests by VICE for comment on how it used SafeGraph data.