Google Tracks Flu (And You)?
As the old saying goes, "Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." And now, thanks to Google, that just might be even more true today than it was yesterday.
When flu season hits, the media usually devotes generous space to reporting it -- but not until aches and fever have already assaulted you or your community. In other words, after the fact. That's because public information about flu outbreaks has relied on reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which continually tracks flu trends to discover where outbreaks have been occurring. The CDC gets its information from doctors, hospitals, and labs; but because it takes time to gather data from these sources, the release of information concerning an outbreak usually follows the actual event by several weeks.
Now Google has a solution that will allow you to know almost instantly, or even in advance, when the flu comes to town. Earlier this week, Google launched its new "flu trends" service, which reports the spread of any flu outbreak in real-time, state-by-state to anyone who clicks on the site. How does it accomplish this miracle? The site tallies search queries on any terms related to the flu on a daily basis, by locale. Based on the number of queries from users searching flu-related terms, Flu Trends projects the number of actual flu cases in each area.
While predicting epidemics based on internet searches may sound like sloppy science, according to Google software engineers Jeremy Ginsberg and Matt Mohebbi, "... there's a very close relationship between the frequency of these search queries and the number of people who are experiencing flu-like symptoms each week." In fact, Google worked with epidemiologists at the CDC to compare five years of actual flu data with internet queries during that same time period and found a strong correlation. "We know it matches very, very well in the way flu developed in the last year," said Dr. Larry Brilliant, Google's executive director. Google asserts that Flu Trends may estimate and publish data about flu trends two weeks ahead of standard CDC reports.
Why get the bad news in advance and spend the extra two weeks making yourself sick with worry? "The earlier the warning, the earlier prevention and control measures can be put in place, and this could prevent cases of influenza," said Dr. Lyn Finelli of the CDC. That reasoning, of course, assumes you haven't taken "preventative measures" such as getting your flu shot.
But beyond the issue of what benefits such information might provide, Google's new service raises a whole boatload of right-to-privacy issues. For instance, what happens if the bird flu or some other dread illness heads toward your hometown? Will Google data be used to justify a quarantine of your town, even before the actual epidemic hits? And if so, will certain areas and certain populations be more vulnerable to quarantine? For instance, if Google is tracking search terms, then areas with greater concentrations of computers (upscale suburbs) would show far higher hit rates than areas with low concentrations of hardware and computer savvy users (inner cities for example). In other words, would upscale neighborhoods pay a price for their wealth in terms of higher levels of surveillance?
While the chances that you'll experience negative consequences because of your various internet health searches are probably slim, they are hardly zero -- particularly when governments are involved. Consider the recent hair-raising news about eavesdropping by the National Security Administration in which private conversations deemed amusing by NSA employees were not only taped, but passed about for the entertainment of fellow workers -- all in the name of Homeland Security. Assurances of confidentiality in the real world seem to mean little these days (see story here.) Such events make it difficult to completely trust the pledges that your privacy is protected, even while your internet searches are being tracked.
In any event, your best bet is to avoid coming down with flu symptoms in the first place -- or with any other illness -- by taking immune-building supplements, watching your diet, maintaining a high level of resistance through good health practices, and keeping a supply of pathogen destroyers on hand for use in an emergency. For more information on immune enhancers and pathogen destroyers, click here. Oh yes, and think twice before you do your next search on "vitamin C."