Data Broker Shared Private Information with D.C. Government in Covid Tracking Effort

The Washington DC government reportedly utilized phone GPS records given by a private data broker to monitor residents and investigate the spread of COVID-19.

According to public records obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy organization, the Department of Health of DC obtained raw phone location data from location data broker Veraset. The data was collected as part of an initiative by the DC Chief Technology Officer and The Lab @ DC, a branch of the City Administrator’s Office, to help the city respond to COVID-19.

Veraset is an offshoot of data tracking business SafeGraph, which sold Android users’ location data for COVID-19 contact tracing. Google banned SafeGraph in August 2021 because of its data harvesting tactics.

The Daily Caller reports that Veraset had a contract with the city between April 2020 and September 2020. It gave the DC government data on the movements of thousands of individuals throughout the city. The phone location data it delivered to the DC government was labeled “highly sensitive” by the business. 

The data was nominally anonymized, and its usage was limited by a legal agreement between Veraset and the DC Department of Health to research COVID-19.

However, EFF principal technologist Bennett Cyphers noted that markers in the data might still be used to identify people. He explained, “If you look at a map of where a device spends its time, you can learn a lot: where you sleep at night, where you work, where you eat lunch, what bars and parks you go to.”

Additionally, Cyphers said:

 “A lot of these data brokers’ existence depends on people not knowing too much about them because they’re universally unpopular. Veraset refuses to reveal even how they get their data or which apps they purchase it from, and I think that’s because if anyone realized the app you’re using … also opts you into having your location data sold on the open market, people would be angry and creeped out.”

The Lab @ DC director, Sam Quinney, said that the data was used exclusively to help the city respond to COVID-19.

Quinney stated:

“DC Government received an opportunity from Veraset to analyze anonymous mobility data to determine if the data could inform decisions affecting COVID-19 response, recovery, and reopening. After working with the data, we did not find suitable insights for our use cases and did not renew access to the data when our agreement expired on September 30, 2020. The dataset was acquired for no cost and is scheduled to be deleted on December 31, 2021.”

When the agreement ended, a DC official claimed that the Veraset data was “an excellent baptism by fire” for scientists hoping to broaden the city’s information database.

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