12 Nov Sick? Google shares health searches with Government
CNET News, By Chris Matyszczyk, November 12, 2008
Google has always deserved a little healthy suspicion. Now it may be getting unhealthy. The company that will never, never share your search information, no, no, no, unless, well, things change, is launching something called Flu Trends. It is based on the exciting notion that when people come down with the flu, they rush headlong to their laptops and search “flu”, “flu symptoms”, “thermometer” or “can you pick up germs through kissing people you don’t know?”. So the idea that the Googlie engineers have come up with is to track these searches so that the Government can warn certain regions when flu is coming their way. I know that some may swoon at this altruistic inventiveness. Others might think it another small step towards excessively human engineering. “The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza,” Dr Lyn Finelli of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention told the New York Times. Indeed. But do any of you experience a very slight flu symptom when you hear the phrase ‘control measures’? Google and the CDC have actually been comparing notes. The search company whipped out five years of search data and claims they correlated with the CDC’s own information. It does seem slightly strange that people don’t know to deal with the flu and feel the need to search for more information or some new magical cure. Perhaps this is an example of search dementia, the increasing reliance of all human beings on search instead of their own naturally-developed noggins. Flu Trends is just the first in a long line of projects looking to reap benefits from our searches. “I think we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with collective intelligence,” said MIT professor Thomas W. Malone. Indeed. But who will be doing the scratching and why? How comfortable do we all feel about our supposedly privacy-protected searches being used for ends that might be defined as in the public interest? Who will define what’s interesting and what isn’t? What if the Government begins to identify areas where people search ‘AIDS’, for example? What if it concludes that ‘something needs to be done’ in, say, Western Tennessee about AIDS? Or what if Google and some official friends decide to investigate searches like ‘porn’, ‘anarchy’ or ‘Rudy Giuliani sex change’? And what if the Government one day suggests to Google that it has to give up individual search information on any of the subjects on which the two entities compared notes? You know, in the public interest.