In a report released on May 3rd, 2022, the team behind Vice announced that the CDC has been using phone location data for tracking and monitoring COVID-19 lockdown compliance since 2020. According to Vice, the data obtained by the CDC was used for analytics, pattern tracking, and policy effectiveness. The reports also showed that COVID-19 was cited as an excuse to purchase data quickly for additional CDC purposes. 

The CDC obtained location data from tracking phone activity across the United States during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The data itself was purchased through SafeGraph, a company whose investors include Peter Thiel and the former head of Saudi intelligence. In June 2021, Google took SafeGraph off of the Google play store.

According to the CDC, data obtained from SafeGraph was utilized to monitor curfews during the pandemic. Vice reports that the information has also been used to track “detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring.” 

CDC Tracked Phones According to Vice Reports

Documents obtained by reporters indicate that the CDC has a list of use cases for data they purchased from SafeGraph. The CDC hoped to use the SafeGraph data to: 

  • “Track patterns of those visiting K-12 schools.” 
  • “Examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases […] Movement restrictions (Border closures, inter-regional and nigh curfews) to show compliance.”
  • “Examination of the effectiveness of public policy on [the] Navajo Nation.”

Using location data is not uncommon. The New York Times utilized similar information to inform articles about travel patterns that occurred after lockdown protocols were reduced. This practice does not eliminate the potential threat of how criminals can manipulate location tracking data for less journalistic purposes. 

Although the CDC procured this location data through SafeGraph for the purposes of COVID-19 tracking, they also have other plans. According to an official document: “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.” 

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The CDC and SafeGraph Tracking Data

There is no follow-up information provided by the CDC at this time that reflects which projects utilized the SafeGraph data. The CDC conducted a COVID-19 study and released information in September of 2020. This study utilized data they previously obtained from SafeGraph using similar location-tracking methods.

“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,” said the CDC.

At a time when transparency is so key to our continued unity, this information can make U.S. citizens feel uneasy. It’s never been more important to ensure that you keep yourself informed and safe. Turning off location tracking on certain apps can help improve your safety. You can also use apps like VPNs to mask your location information. Regardless of your methods, it’s necessary to give yourself additional privacy practices to strengthen your online protection. 

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Why Online Privacy Matters

Protecting your personal data has never been more important. Keeping yourself safe online can be a challenge with data monitoring around every corner. Unless you actively monitor your Wi-Fi activity, it can be impossible to detect whether someone is tracking you online. 

When cybercriminals, or other entities, obtain your data, they can use it in a variety of ways. Depending on their intentions, hackers can use your information to steal your identity. Some malicious hackers can take your data and fraudulently impersonate you. They can access your financial accounts, your social media profiles, and much more. 

Identity theft and fraud are just some of the risks that come with someone selling your data without your knowledge. This is why it’s vital that your data remains hidden and secure. Using a reliable VPN is one way to protect your activity and information. Although some location tracking can be useful, it’s important to differentiate when someone should keep their information private. 

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