Public health and Google Trends

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Huddled under a blanket in the quiet of your computer room, aching from head to toe, you decide do a quick Google search for flu remedies or maybe read more on the where the next flu clinic will be held. Congratulations – with Google’s help, you’ve just volunteered for the public health early warning system.

Discussed Tuesday in the Drudge Report, Google’s new Flu Trends is said to aggregate Google search data and it claims to estimate flu activity in US states up to two weeks faster than traditional public health tracking. Google is also providing graphical results for flu-related search results for some Canadian provinces.

Perhaps you believe searches for flu-related terms aren’t very revealing? What about when it expands its reporting into more sensitive areas – say, sexually transmitted diseases (or genetic diseases like Huntington’s chorea)? But with Google having announced that it will anonymize search results after nine months, doesn’t that give you comfort?

Perhaps you say all this doesn’t matter because Google says user privacy is protected: “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.”

There is a delicate balance to be struck between tracking data in the public interest and the danger of violating personal privacy. Many issues need to be considered. For example, the recent Federal Court’s recent decision in Gordon, which dealt with the concept of identifiability of information in a database of adverse drug reactions,adopted a test suggested by our office.
More robust public debate is needed about the issues raised by these developments and we look forward to your feedback.

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