A report by Vice News details how the CDC purchased tracking data for millions of Americans’ mobile phones with an intention of monitoring their movements to see if they were complying with lockdowns, curfews and travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic.
The reports states that the CDC paid $420,000 for one year of data from a company called SafeGraph, which links up with app developers to harvest location data from people’s phones. When people download the apps to their devices, they are asked to accept terms that include sharing location data.
The company, which is linked to a former head of Saudi intelligence, has since been banned from the Google Play Store for violating its T&Cs on data collection.
The documents obtained by Vice state that the procurement request for the data by the CDC was labelled as an “URGENT COVID-19” request and should be given priority.
The documents outline several “potential CDC use cases for data,” specifically listing “the effect of large-scale anti-contagion policies on the COVID-19 pandemic,” “Examination of COVID-19 vaccination rates, mobility, … at the county or sub-county level (this could also be applies to flu and mask use),” and “examination of the correlation of mobility patterns data and rise in COVID-19 cases”.
A CDC document obtained by Vice admits that the data “has been 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.”
Another section notes that “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.”
It is believed that at least 20 million active cellphone users per day in the US had data harvested by the process.
SafeGraph has also been accused of selling location data of visitors to abortion clinics, which the company this week announced it will halt.
As we previously noted, reports revealed that Government spies in the UK were monitoring the movement of British people minute by minute to check if they were complying with government restrictions.
The London Telegraph (Paywall) reported in late 2020 that spies from Britain’s most secretive intelligence and security organisation, Government Communications Headquarters, had embedded a ‘cell’ within Number 10 Downing Street in order to provide Prime Minister Boris Johnson with real time information pertaining to the public’s movements.
The Daily Mail also reported on the development, noting that GCHQ, normally tasked with spying on terrorists and foreign powers, was turned on the British public to gauge whether people were following the COVID ‘rules’ or not.
The report noted that as well as tracking the movement of people, the spies were collecting information on “internet searches for holidays and jobs.”
The spy agency was also being employed to combat ‘anti-vaccination conspiracy theories’ being spread on social media, in relation to the pandemic.
Speaking anonymously to the London Times, a source noted that “GCHQ has been told to take out antivaxers online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda.”
GCHQ has previously been embroiled in controversy where spying on the public is concerned, as it was revealed in 2013 by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the agency was scouring all online and telephone data in the UK via a program code named ‘Tempora’.
In addition, In January 2021, British Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt called for the government to use GPS tracking technology to ensure Brits were complying with COVID quarantine measures.
As we also previously highlighted, a YouGov poll asked Brits if they supported, “The Government in [country name] using the mobile phone data of individuals to ensure they are complying with restrictions on movement outside of the home during a lockdown.”
45% supported the idea compared to 42% who opposed it.
Another idea was to force Brits to take daily selfies that were cross referenced with GPS data and facial recognition software to ensure they didn’t leave home.
The policies were compared to those of the Chinese government, which reportedly forced some citizens to scan a government tracking app before being allowed to re-enter their own homes.
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