CDC spends $420k on location data for monitoring beyond claimed COVID tracking: reports

"CDC opened the door to the mass surveillance data purchase using the excuse of Covid," according to Open the Books founder. "Of course, it was a bait-and-switch and now the agency will use the data for general operations."

Updated: June 11, 2022 - 11:09pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Golden Horseshoe is a weekly designation from Just The News intended to highlight egregious examples of wasteful taxpayer spending by the government. The award is named for the horseshoe-shaped toilet seats for military airplanes that cost the Pentagon a whopping $640 each back in the 1980s.

This week's Golden Horseshoe is awarded to the Centers for Disease Control for spending $420,000 to buy location data for millions of Americans' phones. While the data was purportedly acquired for COVID-19 tracking, the agency is reportedly using it to support varied, agency-wide surveillance efforts far beyond pandemic monitoring, according to federal spending watchdog site OpenTheBooks.com.

While the CDC claimed it purchased the data to monitor Americans' adherence to lockdown curfews and visits to pharmacies for vaccine monitoring, the CDC envisages tracking people as they engage in physical activity and visit gyms, parks, weight management businesses — and even places of worship, according to public records obtained by Vice through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

The documents "show that although the CDC used COVID-19 as a reason to buy access to the data more quickly, it intended to use it for more-general CDC purposes," Vice reported.

"The CDC admitted in the document that there were plenty of non-COVID-19 uses for this data, stating, 'The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities,'" OpenTheBooks.com reported.

A controversial data broker, SafeGraph, sold the data to the CDC. Some researchers claim that while the information was aggregated location data, it can be "de-anonymized and used to track specific people," the watchdog site reported.

The records obtained by Vice show the CDC foresees using the data for a wide variety of analytical purposes extending far beyond COVID tracking. 

"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," Vice reported. "The mobility data obtained under this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities."

The documents established 21 "potential CDC use cases for data," according to Vice.

"The CDC shouldn't use tax dollars to surveil U.S. citizens," wrote Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of OpenTheBooks.com.

"The new arms race is between government using the latest in technology to further intrude on the private sector and we the people using the latest in technology to open up the government and hold them accountable," Andrzejewski told Just the News. "These unelected bureaucrats at the CDC are using taxpayer money to fund surveillance programs to track taxpayers. It's mass surveillance and uncharted territory.

"CDC opened the door to the mass surveillance data purchase using the excuse of Covid. Of course, it was a bait-and-switch and now the agency will use the data for general operations."

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Just the News Spotlight