Like it or not, location tracking is here to stay. There’s money in the tracking device industry, yet plenty of scorn, as these devices – specifically the AirTag – are used to stalk people. Even a government agency can use location data for less than honorable reasons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) obtained location data specifically to track COVID cases and compliance.
Documents Show CDC Obtained Location Data
Documents show that location data from tens of thousands of people in the U.S. was obtained by the CDC. While aggregated, there are still concerns that it could reveal more personalized information. While at one point the agency was getting data for free, the CDC eventually paid $420,000 to SafeGraph for a year’s worth of data.
The location data was used by the CDC to monitor curfews, among other reasons. These 2021 documents said the location 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.”
Cybersecurity analyst Zach Edwards, who reviewed the documents, noted: “The CDC seems to have purposefully created an open-ended list of use cases, which included monitoring of curfews, neighbor to neighbor visits, visits to churches, schools and pharmacies, and also a variety of analysis with this data specifically focused on ‘violence.’ “
Included in the 21 uses laid out for the data were:
- “Track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by the school and compare to 2019; compare with epi metrics [Environmental Performance Index] if possible.”
- “Examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases […] Movement restrictions (Border closures, interregional and nigh [sic] curfews) to show compliance.”
- “Examination of the effectiveness of public policy on [the] Navajo Nation.”
Using location data to study the pandemic was not a unique idea for the CDC. Media used it to show the migration of people with the changing restrictions or that less financially stable communities weren’t able to work from home as much as others.”
The news feeds into the paranoia of how vaccine passports could be used to surveil people to the point of lost freedoms.
While the documents said, “This is an URGENT COVID-19 PR,” the CDC also laid out other uses for this data, such as to “research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention, such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”
Also explained in the documents were “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 documents added that “the mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities.”
The CDC-SafeGraph Relationship
Location data can be packaged into “places” and “patterns,” and SafeGraph sells both to its customers. It also sells data that shows how much is spent at different locales. Edwards called out a SafeGraph search result that showed a specific physician’s office, demonstrating how this data could be used to target an individual.
The SafeGraph data bought by the CDC is titled “U.S. Core Place Data,” “Weekly Patterns Data,” and “Neighborhood Patterns Data.” It also notes that “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.”
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, SafeGraph described a goal to “play our part in the fight against the COVID-19 health crisis – and its devastating impact on the global economy – we decided to expand our program further, making our foot traffic data free for non-profit organizations and government agencies at the local, state, and federal level.”
One year later, the CDC purchased the location data. The documents explain SafeGraph no longer wanted to hand it over for free. The agreement was going to expire on March 31, 2021, but the CDC still felt it was worthwhile as the U.S. was beginning to open again.
The agency explained it by noting, “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.”
To further understand SafeGraph, it should be noted that Google banned SafeGraph in June 2021. Developers using SafeGraph code were required to remove it if they wanted their apps placed in the Google Play Store.
Worried how your location data could be used? Learn how to disable or automatically delete Google Location history.
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