Wednesday, May 04, 2022

"Who's at church?" CDC tracked millions of phones for pandemic compliance

Bombshell report from Motherboard: the Centers for Disease Control "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 churches], and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation," according to documents obtained by the tech blog.

Read the full article at this link

Consumer data is the new digital gold mine, and cell phones and tech devices are a treasure trove for information companies. Just about everything on a smartphone or smart device is recorded and can be tracked, with varying levels of security and privacy depending on user, device, and system settings.

Not to be outdone by the ever-watchful eye of Big Tech, Big Government wants in on the feast, and the CDC chose to "never let a crisis go to waste", using COVID-19 as cover to track Americans' behavior.

Location data is information on a device’s location sourced from the phone, which can then show where a person lives, works, and where they went. The sort of data the CDC bought was aggregated—meaning it was designed to follow trends that emerge from the movements of groups of people—but researchers have repeatedly raised concerns with how location data can be deanonymized and used to track specific people.

The Motherboard article notes that SafeGraph, the company the CDC purchased data access from, was banned by Google last summer:

SafeGraph collected at least some of its location data by having app developers embed the company's code, or software development kit (SDK), into their own apps. Those apps would then track the physical location of their users, which SafeGraph would repackage and then sell to other parties. Google confirmed to Motherboard it told app developers in early June they had seven days to remove SafeGraph's SDK from their apps. If they didn't do this, Google told Motherboard the apps may face enforcement. This can mean removal from the Play Store itself.

SafeGraph's investors include "a former head of Saudi intelligence."

More on the detail of information gathered by SafeGraph:

Last year Motherboard bought a small set of data from SafeGraph for around $200 to test how easy it was to obtain and to verify the sort of information it contained. It included a list of points of interest for the area we bought data for, and other information such as the specific next point of interest visitors then went to. For example, one line showed the people who went to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints then visited a list of particular convenience stores.


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, SafeGraph provided this information for free to various nonprofit organizations and government organizations. A year into it, however, they started charging for access, and like an addict hooked on drugs, the CDC paid $420,000 to obtain it for another year. 

Zach Edwards, a cybersecurity researcher who closely follows the data marketplace, told Motherboard in an online chat after reviewing the documents: “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 analysis with this data specifically focused on ‘violence.’” (The document doesn’t stop at churches; it mentions “places of worship.”) 

The justification for the data purchase was regarding COVID-19, but the extent of use was far beyond that: 

Screenshot of the use cases proposed by the CDC. Image: Motherboard.

According to the documents obtained by Motherboard, the CDC was particularly interested in tracking church attendance and, oddly enough, movement in the Navajo Nation. My church supports a native pastor in the Navajo Nation, which like many of the tribal reservations across the country was locked down tightly by government bureaucrats during the height of the pandemic. 

Why the Navajo Nation in particular? Outside of the military, there are few places in the United States as tightly controlled by government influence as the Indian reservations. What better place to monitor for compliance than a place that is already subject to deep government intrusion?

Churches, on reservation and off, were lambasted by COVID fear-mongers and authoritarians for daring to hold the commands of Christ sacred and continue with the God-ordained regular corporate assembly of the gathered saints. Now we know how near the government eye was during that time... and probably still is.


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