Google provides "Aggregate" search trends to government

Interesting story:

GOOGLE will launch a new tool that will help federal officials “track sickness”.

 ”Flu Trends” uses search terms that people put into the web giant to figure out where influenza is heating up, and will notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in real time!

GOOGLE, continuing to work closely with government, claims it would keep individual user data confidential: “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.”

Engineers will capture keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and others.

Dr. Lyn Finelli, chief of influenza surveillance at CDC: “One thing we found last year when we validated this model is it tended to predict surveillance data. The data are really, really timely. They were able to tell us on a day-to-day basis the relative direction of flu activity for a given area. They were about a week ahead of us. They could be used… as early warning signal for flu activity.”

Eric Schmidt, GOOGLE’s chief executive vows: “From a technological perspective, it is the beginning.”

Thomas Malone, professor at M.I.T.: “I think we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with collective intelligence.”

That’s a great idea. Let’s take “anonymized” search data from a corporation notorious for being unclear and imprecise about it’s privacy and data-retention policies and let’s give it to a government agency.

See the Flu Trends yourself:

Now before people start crying how about how I’m over-dramatic and a google hater, it’s important you understand my real concerns. My primary concerns are this:

  • Google is NOT transparent and upfront about it’s privacy policies

They don’t spell out their retention time length, and even when other nations have forced them to, they set new retention times which are still unreasonably long.

  • Google’s Motto is Do No Evil but sometimes, it’s out of their control

Take for example the battle between Google, and Viacom. Google, who has a tendancy to maintain all data (Gmail, Search terms, queries, maps, locations) indefinitely, was Sued by Viacom over copyright infringement in regards to YouTube videos. Google was forced to hand over logs and records indicating all IP addresses/users/persons who had ever viewed youtube videos, and which videos they viewed.

Recently, Viacom and Google came to an agreement in which they would no longer provide ‘personally identifiable’ information in the logs, but the records handed over would still contain unique identifiers, in the event Viacom was “forced to determine individualized fault“.

I pick on Google because they have not yet chosen to put it’s users interests first. If they did, they wouldn’t log everything, forever, without disclosing how long that might be. Because the truth is, no matter how “Unevil” they try to be, sometimes it’s just not up to them. If the courts can force them to turn over information for simple copyright infringment of television shows, what can more powerful government entities and legal battles force Google to turn over?