Nick Heer reminded me that shortly after Apple and Google announced their Exposure Notification System, the Washington Post ran a story criticizing the plan, quoting public health officials concerned that the EN system wouldn’t provide location data and other information that would enable contact tracing.
The tech companies went on to release their Exposure Notification framework, and the EN system turned out to be of little consequence in the United States. (Although I can report that my household did receive our first EN alert this week — for an exposure that occurred thirteen days earlier.)
It also turns out that the CDC went ahead and procured location data through commercial vendors. As Joseph Cox reported for Motherboard:
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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 CDC documents obtained by Motherboard. The documents also show that although the CDC used COVID-19 as a reason to buy access to the data more quickly, it intended to use it for more-general CDC purposes.
The CDC procurement lists 21 different potential use cases, including “Research points of interest for physical activity and chronic disease prevention such as visits to parks, gyms, or weight management businesses.”
Now the location data was aggregated — so it could not conveniently be used for contact tracing. But that does not mean that individuals cannot be identified.
Nick Heer connects the dots between the CDC location data and the Post’s report of public health’s skepticism over anonymous Exposure Notifications.
The reason I bring that up is because it turns out a new app that invades your privacy in the way the Post seemed to want was unnecessary when a bunch of other apps on your phone do that job just fine. And, for the record, that is terrible.
It would seem the CDC now has all the location data money can buy.