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Sen. Ron Johnson opens probe into the CDC for collecting, aggregating data from Americans’ cell phones


Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, ranking Republican member of the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, announced that he has opened a probe into the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) purchase of millions of Americans’ location data and using it to track their activities and behavior.

Quick Facts

The Republican Senator explained, “Just because data exists, doesn’t mean that the government should be using it to track Americans. I would think that that really raises some very serious constitutional issues.”

The CDC made headlines after documents revealed that the agency had received access to millions of Americans’ data in order to track their movements during the COVID pandemic, initially for free but later at a cost of $420,000. The data was procured from SafeGraph, a company whose investors include the former head of Saudi intelligence Turki bin Faisal Al Saud. The CDC used the information 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.”

The CDC used COVID as a reason to get the information more rapidly, but the intent was actually for other purposes.

The documents, obtained by Motherboard through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, show that “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.”

Although the pandemic has subsided, the CDC argues that the data it had collected is still important. It stated, “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.”

The data was supposedly anonymous, but the CDC said it learned “extremely accurate insights related to age, gender, race, citizenship status, income, and more.”

Researchers have shown that the data collected is enough to identify most individuals.

In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Johnson wrote, “It remains unclear why the CDC tracked millions of Americans during the pandemic and whether it continues to do so. 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.”

He later told John Solomon, editor in chief of Just the News, “I think the government is becoming way too big, and way too powerful.”

It is wholly unacceptable for any government agency to secretly surveil Americans without a warrant, much less a public health agency that has no authority or reason to be tracking the location or behavior of citizens. And companies that traffic in users’ location should not be rewarded with taxpayer dollars to continue snooping on average people. If any federal agency is allowed to track Americans, gathering data such as their fitness habits, church attendance, and obedience to curfews, then we essentially have a communist-style spy agency monitoring millions of people and potentially using it against them.

Dictators of the 20th century could only dream of such capabilities, and there’s no doubt that they would have used them to the benefit of their own power. What’s shocking is that American government officials — despite being limited by a Bill of Rights and a legal system governed by due process — seem to also have no qualms with using those same tools. The questions everyone should be asking is: For what ultimate purpose are they tracking people, and when — if ever — were they planning on letting the American people in on these plans?

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