CDC Exposed: Data Buying And Spying Was Standard

Written By BlabberBuzz | Friday, 06 May 2022 02:15
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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paid for location data gathered from millions of cell phones to follow compliance with COVID-19 lockdown standards, according to a new report.

The CDC paid $420,000 for a year of access to the cell phone location data from the data brokerage SafeGraph, according to documents reported by Vice News on Tuesday. The data was aggregated, suggesting that it was meant to reveal general trends rather than the movements of specific phones, although the move still set off alarm bells with many privacy advocates.

The CDC and SafeGraph did not respond to messages seeking comment on Tuesday afternoon. According to Vice, the documents reveal that the CDC intended to use the data to analyze compliance with curfews, track the habits of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically scrutinize the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation.

The CDC documents describe SafeGraph’s data as “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.” Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely tracks the data marketplace, told Vice that it seems that the CDC had broader ambitions for the location data beyond tracking the pandemic response.

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“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 analyses with this data specifically focused on ‘violence,” he explained to the outlet.

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In the early days of the pandemic, SafeGraph made some of its aggregate data and analysis available publicly to help inform the policy response to the pandemic.

The data revealed, for instance, how visits to bars and restaurants had changed compared to the pre-pandemic average. In an April 2020 blog post, the company described how the CDC was utilizing the free information, including “to better understand where COVID-19 has the potential to spread the most.”

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Although, by last year, SafeGraph began charging for its location data. The controversial firm is financially backed by Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. Billionaire Peter Thiel is an investor in the company.

In June, Google banned SafeGraph from the Android app store, meaning that apps incorporating the company’s tracking codes were forced to remove it. SafeGraph collected at least some of its information through codes embedded in different apps.

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