The Electronic Privacy Information Center and Patient Privacy Rights sent a letter this week to Google CEO Eric Schmidt saying if the records are “disclosed and linked to a particular user, there could be adverse consequences for education, employment, insurance, and even travel.” It asks for more disclosure about how Google Flu Trends protects privacy.
I agree with Declan that
If you think that knowing that Alaska’s “influenza-like illness” number for the week of November 9 is 2.035 and California’s number is 1.384 is somehow worrisome and can identify you personally, it’s time to break out your tinfoil hat.
But, as the article gets to, the deeper concern is the one expressed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center:
There are no clear legal or technological privacy safeguards that prevent the disclosure of individual search histories. Without such privacy safeguards Google Flu Trends could be used to reidentify users who search for medical information. Such user-specific investigations could be compelled, even over Google’s objection, by court order or presidential authority.
I’m not paranoid, and I actually think that both privacy advocates and web search companies have often exaggerated privacy issues, especially since the AOL fiasco a couple of years ago. But EPIC is raising is a legitimate concern, and I think Google doesn’t seem to be providing very reassuring answers.
Specifically, web search companies are very protective of their log data in the name of privacy, much to the chagrin of researchers. And yet those same companies feel that privacy advocates exaggerate their concerns about the data being collected in the first place. Google / Yahoo / Microsoft: you can’t have it both ways!
A final point: Declan comments that “If users don’t like that, nobody’s forcing them to use Google.” I chalk that attitude up to his libertarianism rather than to any partiality he may have towards his wife’s employer. I have a libertartian streak myself, so I’m sympathetic. But, just as a practical matter, this is the sort of behavior that historically attracts regulation. Google and its rivals would do well to acknowledge the legitimacy of their critics’ concerns and regulate themselves first.