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Privacy Concerns Raised With Google Flu Tracking

Last Week we did a post (Google Announces Flu Tracking Capabilities, May Predict Outbreaks Before CDC) on tracking flu trends after Google publicly announced their capabilities of tracking the flu, and possibly warning of outbreaks weeks ahead of what was once possible using other current modeling methods.

A few days later privacy concerns were raised in the news, though these concerns are not really warranted since personal data is not relayed to anyone.

Basically Google uses specific search terms in geographical locations and uses the search terms to populate a map based on how many other searches for related terms are occurring in that area. Though there is slightly more complicated than this, this is how it works in a nutshell.

Google, in now way makes the data of those performing the actual search available and this technology is much needed, especially with the possibility of an outbreak of avian flu occurring.

The CDC is on board and assisting with the use of this tracking technology and if it has the potential to possibly stop an outbreak from spreading unchecked then I am all for it.

Here is the privacy statement from Google on this technology:

Protecting User Privacy

At Google, we are keenly aware of the trust our users place in us, and of our responsibility to protect their privacy. Google Flu Trends can never be used to identify individual users because we rely on anonymized, aggregated counts of how often certain search queries occur each week. We rely on millions of search queries issued to Google over time, and the patterns we observe in the data are only meaningful across large populations of Google search users. You can learn more about how this data is used and how Google protects users' privacy at our Privacy Center.


Google Announces Flu Tracking Capabilities, May Predict Outbreak Before CDC

Google announced yesterday that they are tracking flu trends and hope to be able to alert people to an outbreak before the CDC is even aware an outbreak has occurred.

According to a post on the Blog "The CDC does a great job of surveying real doctors and patients to accurately track the flu, so why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems take 1-2 weeks to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza.

For epidemiologists, this is an exciting development, because early detection of a disease outbreak can reduce the number of people affected. If a new strain of influenza virus emerges under certain conditions, a pandemic could emerge and cause millions of deaths (as happened, for example, in 1918). Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and — though we hope never to find out — pandemics.

We shared our preliminary results with the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at CDC throughout the 2007-2008 flu season, and together we saw that our search-based flu estimates had a consistently strong correlation with real CDC surveillance data. Our system is still very experimental, so anything is possible, but we're hoping to see similar correlations in the coming year."

Source 1
Source 2 Google Flu Trends