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The CDC Bought Cell Phone Data To Monitor U.S. Lockdown Compliance

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) purchased data from monitoring companies in order to track lockdown compliance, according to contracts it had with those companies. The CDC paid one company $420,000, another $208,000. Those figures bought access to the location data of at least 55 million cell phone users.

The contracts were approved under emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC claims the data provided the agency “with the necessary data to continue critical emergency response functions related to evaluating the impact of visits to key points of interest, stay at home orders, closures, re-openings and other public heath communications related to mask mandate, and other merging research areas on community transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” the contracts, obtained by The Epoch Times, state.

The CDC said the tracking data would be used to “assess home-by-hour behaviors (i.e. curfew analysis) by exploring the percentage of mobile devices at home during specific period of time.” The data could also be integrated with other information “to provide a comprehensive picture of movement/travel of persons during the COVID-19 pandemic to better understand mandatory stay-at-home orders, business closure, school re-openings, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions in states and cities.”

Under the heading “potential use cases,” CDC said that this data might be used to try to link forced bar and restaurant closings to COVID-19 infections and mortality rates, and try to evaluate the effect of restrictions by states on people’s closer contacts outside of their homes. 

The data also could be used to track compliance with mandatory or recommended quarantine following an arrival from another state, and examine correlations between patterns of movement and spikes in COVID-19 cases in settings like churches, concerts, and grocery stores.

“For COVID-19, the insights derived from these data provide essential information on the impact and effectiveness of policies and COVID-19 mitigation measures (e.g., jurisdictional stay-at-home orders and business closures) that had profound effects on communities,” Scott Pauley, CDC spokesperson, told The Epoch Times via email.

“These data provide important insights to protect public health and have been used to understand population-level impacts of COVID-19 policies and can shed important light on other pressing public health problems, like natural disaster response, and toxic environmental exposures. CDC does not and could not use these data for monitoring compliance with COVID-19 orders or individual tracking,” he added.

The contract was reported earlier on by Vice News, but the outlet published only a screenshot from one page. Together, the contracts totaled 71 pages. Both were signed in 2021. 

The CDC, in its first days of the pandemic, received data from companies SafeGraph and Cuebiq, at no cost. CDC researchers published two studies using the data in 2020. One focused on data from four US metro areas, finding people moved around less when measures like social distancing were enforced. Another found that strict lockdown orders led to decreased movement, whereas after states began lifting their orders, movement increased.

Other researchers also used the movement data to conduct studies. No studies were published by the CDC after the agency purchased the data, and the CDC spokeswoman did not offer examples for what it used the purchased data for. Researchers showed that although de-anonymized, data could be used to identify individuals. Companies such as SafeGraph and Cuebiq capture telephone data from apps, then turn it over to customers on sets.

“The data CDC received were aggregated and anonymous, had extensive privacy protections, and could not be used to identify individuals. They cannot be tied to an individual and have multiple layers of privacy protections to prevent misuse or re-identification,” Pauley said.

SafeGraph sets include “neighborhood patterns,” showing how frequently people visit places of interest, from where they came, and where else they went. 

The sets from Cuebiq included “shelter-in-place index,” which measured how many cellphones were in their homes at any given point, and the out-of-state travelers set, to assess how many of those coming from a different state were “not able to shelter in place.” Cuebiq did not respond to requests for comment.

A SafeGraph spokesperson told The Epoch Times that the firm “compiles and provides objective, verifiable facts about physical locations around the world—like the address or operating hours of a particular point of interest,” arguing its data cannot“de-anonymized,” or “used to identify or to ‘track’ the movements or behavior of individual persons.” The company does this by inserting “randomized noise.” 

Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican member of the Senate investigative subcommittee, expressed concerns about the purchase of mobility data, asking the CDC who approved the purchase and if the data were shared with other agencies. 

“It remains unclear why the CDC tracked millions of Americans during the pandemic and whether it continues to do so. In response to COVID-19, the CDC should have been prioritizing the development of treatments, effective testing, and vaccine safety rather than tracking Americans’ daily lives,” Johnson wrote to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

Walensky replied that the data was  instrumental to “us[ing] the best science available to inform our understanding of the public health impacts of interventions and to inform recommendations.”

The CDC has also used Google’s location tracking data, Walensky said, but it has never paid for that data. She also said that data purchased is not shared with any other agency, nor is it shared with any private companies.

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