Google has recently launched Google Flu Trends, a web tool that tracks the number and location of Americans typing phrases such as “flu symptoms” into Google’s search engine in order to potentially detect regional flu breakouts a week to ten days before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If accurate, such data could be used to speed up the response time of doctors, hospitals, and governments to flu season, potentially reducing the spread of the illness and saving lives. While the implications for such innovative uses of technology are exciting, those with privacy concerns will likely want to monitor the extent to which individual citizens’ search terms are monitored.

Currently Google aggregates the data it uses for Flu Trends, thus arguably avoiding privacy concerns. However, Google’s chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, told the New York Times, “From a technological perspective, [Google Flu Trends] is just the beginning.” Google is hoping to use the same technique Flu Trends uses to track influenza and other diseases around the world, which will lead to even more tracking of individuals’ search terms. “I think we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with collective intelligence,” predicted Thomas W. Malone, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the New York Times article.

Other organizations have tried to use information on the Internet to improve public health, but with less invasive measures. For example, whoissick.org asks people to report their symptoms and then displays the results on a map. Similarly, healthmap.org searches the Internet for any relevant blogs, articles, or newsletters to track emerging infectious diseases worldwide. However, while fewer privacy concerns arise, it’s pretty clear that these systems, which require active participation, will not receive a fraction of the information Google can collect by using the database of a search engine.

Even though Google aggregates the data for Flu Trends, the ISP still collects and retains search data that includes personal identifying information, such as users’ IP addresses. The U.S. government could potentially subpoena that data on individual computer users, thus defeating the purpose of aggregating the data and allowing the government to identify individual sick people. Since Google intends to expand this tool, it could soon be used to track who has HIV, cancer, and other diseases. Citizens concerned about invasions of privacy may want to monitor the extent to which their searches are being used to gather information of a very personal nature.

–DeNae Thomas

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