An article in today’s New York Times reports on Google Flu Trends, which aspires to detect regional outbreaks of the flu before they are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As reported in the article:
Google Flu Trends is based on the simple idea that people who are feeling sick will probably turn to the Web for information, typing things like “flu symptoms” or “muscle aches” into Google. The service tracks such queries and charts their ebb and flow, broken down by regions and states.
It’s a clever idea, though obviously it raises privacy concerns. Google mitigates those concerns by “relying only on aggregated data that cannot be used to identify individual searchers.”
It will be interesting to see popular reaction to this offering in the United States and in more privacy-conscious Western Europe. On one hand, health-related search logs are the bête noire of privacy activists–and with good reason, since people are terrified of losing their health insurance. On the other hand, Google seems to have only the best intentions here, and the service they provide may do a lot of good.
I personally hope we can see efforts like these succeed. Of course, it’s essential that Google and anyone else who pursues such efforts be transparent about what data they collect and how they protect individuals from inadvertent disclosure. Ideally, they don’t collect more data than is needed–especially when that data is dangerous in the wrong hands.
Though I have to wonder, might anyone try to game such a system? Maybe I have an over-active imagination, but systems like these are seem to be ripe targets for denial-of-insight attacks. Whit, another one for your files?