Like it or not, location tracking is here to stay. There’s money in the tracking device industry, but a lot of contempt, because these devices — especially the AirTag — are used to track 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.
The documents show location data obtained by the CDC
The documents show that the location data of tens of thousands of people in the United States was obtained by the CDC. Although they are aggregated, there is still concern that they may reveal more personalized information. While at one point the agency was getting data for free, the CDC eventually paid SafeGraph $420,000 for a year’s worth of data.
Location data has been used by the CDC to monitor curfews, among other reasons. These 2021 documents stated that location data “has been essential for ongoing response efforts, such as hourly monitoring of activity in curfew areas or detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for the vaccine surveillance”.
Cybersecurity analyst Zach Edwards, who reviewed the documents, noted, “The CDC appears to have deliberately created an open-ended list of use cases, which included curfew monitoring, neighbor-to-neighbor visits, visits to churches, schools and pharmacies, and also a variety of analyzes with this data specifically focused on ‘violence’. “
The 21 planned uses for the data included:
- “Follow the patterns of those visiting K-12 schools by school and compare to 2019; compare with epi metrics [Environmental Performance Index] if possible.”
- “Examining the Correlation Between Mobility Pattern Data and Rising COVID-19 Cases […] Movement restrictions (border, inter-regional and nearby closures) [sic] curfews) to show compliance.
- “Examination of the effectiveness of public policies on [the] Navajo Nation.
Using location data to study the pandemic was not a unique idea for the CDC. The media used it to show people migrating with changing restrictions or that less financially stable communities weren’t able to work from home as much as others.
The news is fueling paranoia about how vaccine passports could be used to monitor people to the point of losing their freedoms.
While the documents said, “This is an URGENT PR COVID-19,” the CDC also defined other uses of this data, such as “finding points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention, such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management companies.
The documents also explained in the documents “the plans for using the data and mobility 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 the pattern of travel and population migration before, during, and after natural disasters.
The documents add that “mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for use across the CDC agency and will support many CDC priorities.”
The CDC-SafeGraph relationship
Location data can be grouped into “locations” and “patterns,” and SafeGraph sells both to its customers. It also sells data that shows how much is spent in different places. Edwards called a SafeGraph search result that showed a specific doctor’s office, demonstrating how that data could be used to target an individual.
The SafeGraph data purchased by the CDC is titled “US 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 information on age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more.”
At the start of the pandemic in 2020, SafeGraph outlined a goal to “play our part in addressing the COVID-19 health crisis – and its devastating impact on the global economy – we have decided to further expand our program, making our foot traffic data free to nonprofit organizations and government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels.
A year later, the CDC purchased the location data. The documents explain that SafeGraph no longer wanted to give it away for free. The deal was set to expire on March 31, 2021, but the CDC still felt it was worth it as the United States began to reopen.
The agency explained this, noting, “The CDC has an interest in continuing to access this mobility data as the country reopens. This data is being used by multiple teams/groups in the response and has provided insight into the pandemic as it relates to human behavior.
To better understand SafeGraph, it should be noted that Google banned SafeGraph in June 2021. Developers using SafeGraph code had to remove it if they wanted their apps to be placed in the Google Play Store.
Wondering how your location data could be used? Learn how to turn off or automatically delete Google location history.
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