Sen. Ron Johnson Demands Answers From CDC Over Alleged Tracking of Americans During Pandemic

Sen. Ron Johnson Demands Answers From CDC Over Alleged Tracking of Americans During Pandemic
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 26, 2021. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Katabella Roberts

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is demanding information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about its efforts to track Americans through location data from cell phones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter sent to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on May 5, Johnson questioned the agency's alleged use of location data and demanded answers regarding why this was allowed and whether it is still ongoing.

"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," Johnson wrote.

The CDC has not responded to requests for comment.

Johnson cited a report by Vice News that said, citing agency documents it obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, that the CDC obtained one year of location data "from at least 20 million active cellphone users per day."

The CDC's potential uses for the data, which was purchased from SafeGraph included tracking the patterns of people visiting primary schools, examining how curfews and border restrictions curtailed movement, and the effectiveness of policies on the Navajo Nation, according to the documents.

They also showed the CDC planned to use the data for issues not related to COVID-19, such as monitoring “population migration before, during, and after natural disasters.”

A contract approved on April 16, 2021, showed the CDC paid SafeGraph $420,000.

According to its website, SafeGraph is "building a company that is narrowly focused on making data an open platform for all" and holds information including points of interest, spatial hierarchy metadata, foot traffic data, spending patterns, and more.

SafeGraph previously provided the CDC and other organizations the data for free, saying it wanted to help them "address the coronavirus's impact." The CDC was using the data to "better understand where COVID-19 has the potential to spread the most, by analyzing foot traffic to businesses as a means of identifying whether or not social distancing measures are being respected at the neighborhood level," the company said in a blog post.
The CDC published a number of studies that analyzed the data, including one that found lockdown orders were linked with decreased population movement.

In order to better understand why the CDC purchased such data and what it planned to do with it, Johnson asked the agency to provide him with answers, including whether its use of location data was the only mechanism employed to monitor Americans during the pandemic, who at the CDC approved the use and purchase of the location data, and the names of the companies that supply the agency with location data.

The senator also asked the CDC to provide details regarding the dates such companies began providing the data and how much it cost.

Finally, he asked that they provide records of its business with SafeGraph and other location data companies and copies of CDC studies or reports that relied on the location data it received.

"Did CDC share location data with other federal, state, and local agencies?" he added. "If so, provide what entities received the data and explain why."

Johnson, who serves as a ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, asked that the agency present the information and requested documents by May 19.

The Epoch Times has filed FOIA requests for information regarding the CDC's proposed and actual uses of the SafeGraph data, as well as details on its contracts with a similar company called Cubeiq.

Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.