Republican Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson is calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to answer for why they used cellphone location data to track Americans throughout the pandemic.
“It remains unclear why the CDC tracked millions of Americans during the pandemic and whether it continues to do so,” Johnson told the CDC in a letter.
“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 called on the CDC to explain if its use of location data was “the only mechanism it employed to monitor Americans during the pandemic,” which official or officials at the CDC approved the “use and subsequent purchase of location data,” what companies supplied the CDC with this data, and whether the CDC shared this location data with any other federal, state, or local agencies.
“If so, provide what entities received the data and explain why,” Johnson told the CDC.
The letter written by the senator comes after internal CDC documents were released by CYBER, a cybersecurity podcast hosted by Vice’s Motherboard.
Those documents which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the CDC “bought access to location data harvested from tens of millions of phones in the United States” to perform “analysis of compliance with curfews, track patterns of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation,” according to Vice.
This included tracking people who visited grade schools and high schools, specifically the Navajo Nation, places of worship, and more, the publication reported.
“A recent report revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spent at least $420,000 to purchase location data from ‘at least 20 million active cellphone users per day’ in an effort to assist the agency in monitoring Americans during the pandemic,” Johnson wrote in his letter to the CDC.
“According to that report, the CDC obtained location data from at least one company, SafeGraph, to examine activities in schools, places of worship, parks, grocery stores, and public transit stations, among others,” he continued. “CDC reportedly wrote in a document, ‘the mobility data obtained in this contract will be available for CDC agency-wide use and will support numerous CDC priorities.‘”
The type of location data the CDC used reveals where a person goes during their day, as well as where they live and where they work. The CDC bought aggregated data, Vice reported, which means that the data was intended to follow trends of groups of people.
But researchers have warned that this type of data can also be used to track individuals, according to Vice.