“I always feel like somebody's watching me,” claimed Rockwell in his 1984 smash hit. If you're feeling the same feeling, then you're probably right.
A VICE Motherboard report published Tuesday states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) purchased the cellphone data of millions of handsets used by Americans to ensure compliance with COVID lockdowns and track vaccination efforts. It's clear that something has gone off the rails in the case of a government agency that was established to combat diseases turning to the surveillance of Americans.
According to the New York Post, the CDC specifically tracked Americans visiting churches and schools and also “detailed counts of visits to participating pharmacies for vaccine monitoring,” internal documents of the federal agency obtained by VICE show. The CDC also tracked the movements of people during curfews and visits between neighbors.
SafeGraph, the controversial data broker that provided the data to the CDC, claims that the information it provided is about group locations, not personal data. Some critics have expressed concerns regarding the accuracy and confidentiality of the data. Location data refers to the location of a device, derived from the phone. It can be used to determine where an individual works, where they live, and even where they've been. The kind of information the CDC acquired was aggregated, which means it was created to track trends that are triggered by the movements of individuals, but researchers have frequently raised questions about how location information could be anonymized and used to identify individuals.
The New York Times a couple of years ago (back in the days when things were somewhat more regular) performed a thorough investigation into location-related data. The newspaper wrote about how it could quickly identify a woman named “Ms. Magrin.” A smartphone app collected her location data, which was later transferred to a third party without her knowledge. The app recorded her location every two seconds, as per an extensive database of more than one million phone numbers within the New York area that was scrutinized by the New York Times. Although Ms. Magrin's identity wasn't identified in the documents, the Times was able to quickly connect her to the dot.
SafeGraph is also accused of selling the location data of people who go to abortion clinics, a practice it said that it was discontinuing on Wednesday. The company is partially funded by the billionaire Paypal CEO Peter Thiel and the former director of Saudi intelligence. (Okay, this is a bit odd, is it not?) Gizmodo reported that a company that sells location data known as SafeGraph announced that it will not sell the location information of the groups of people who go to Planned Parenthood and other clinics that offer abortions, following an earlier VICE report. The purchasers of this data could have identified where the visitors to these clinics were from, the length of time they were in the clinic, and even where they left afterward.
Although readers may not sympathize much with Planned Parenthood’s top donors, be aware that what's done to other people can happen to you. If you're going to an establishment selling guns, it is a good idea to switch off your location.
The CDC isn't the only entity buying data. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Illinois Department of Transportation have been accused of the practice.
Even if the information being sold doesn't reveal personal data, individuals are being tracked in any case. What does this mean? Let's suppose that the aggregated information shows that a lot of people are not complying with the lockdown orders and going to worship services. The authorities responsible for enforcement will naturally send their agents to the places of worship and order the violators home. This could impact you, even if you were not personally tracked.
It's clear that we're in a surveillance state. We've been aware of that for quite a while. For example, families have attempted to go on a road trip in recent months, and navigation apps sounded the alarm at them for taking trips too far away from home.
Following all the changes that came after 9/11 and the advent of cell phones with their ability to pinpoint where we are each moment of the day, the majority of Americans are well aware that their personal information is available and likely being traded. It's possible that they didn't realize that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was one of the buyers since they thought: Aren't they fighting off illnesses?