Bogus Privacy Fears over Google Flu Trends

by on November 16, 2008 · 16 comments

Declan McCullagh, CNET News’ chief political correspondent, does a nice job debunking the privacy fears about Google Flu Trends that a couple of pro-regulatory privacy advocates have set forth. Flu Trends is a very cool application that uses search terms as an indicator of possible upticks in flu-related illnesses in various regions of the U.S.  Of course, it didn’t take long for some Chicken Littles to rain on the parade with their irrational fears about data privacy. As Declan notes, however, there is no personally identifiable information being collected or shared here. It’s just search term analysis. Moreover, if these privacy-sensitive advocates are really that paranoid about it, they should just just Tor or another anonymizer to cloak their searches instead of calling in the regulators to suffocate another technology while its still in the cradle.

Anyway, make sure to read Declan’s excellent piece.

  • MichaelZimmer

    “if these privacy-sensitive advocates are really that paranoid about it, they should just just Tor or another anonymizer to cloak their searches”

    As I'm sure you fully understand, privacy advocates aren't concerned about only their own privacy, but of those who don't know enough to use a (non-simple) technology like Tor.

    And if you read the actual letter from these “chicken littles”, you'll see their concerns center on “how to ensure that Google Flu Trends and similar techniques will only produce aggregate data and will not open the door to user-specific investigations, which could be compelled, even over Google’s objection, by court order or Presidential authority.” What is so irrational about that?

  • Ryan Radia

    Many of the fears expressed on EPIC's page about Flu Trends just don't seem very plausible. How would colleges or prospective employers ever figure out a user's health information from Google? Under Google's privacy policy, search records are kept secret absent a court order. I suppose one could construct a hypothetical situation in which a data breach occurred or a Court ordered Google to hand over search records and then make them public, but these kinds of scenarios are extremely improbable.

    People who are risk averse with respect to privacy can always use Scroogle or Tor or Anonymizer, as Adam points out. Or they can use one of the many other search engines out there.

    It's true that some people might not fully understand the privacy risks associated with using Google products, but it hardly makes sense to neuter a technology simply because some users might use it unwisely. It should be common knowledge that when you submit sensitive information to a third party, there is inevitably some risk of that information being misused. But with strong privacy policies, the risk of misuse if low. The best way to minimize the risk of misuse is not to ban promising technologies but to limit the ability of government to compel private data from firms in borderline cases.

  • MichaelZimmer

    @ Ryan: No where under Google's privacy policy does it state that “search records are kep secret absent a court order.” Rather, it states they will divulge personal information if they believe it “reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request”, among other possibilities. That is a far cry from a court order.

  • Anonymous

    “…there is no personally identifiable information being collected or shared here…”

    Just wondering what kind of connections there may be between user identification and g-mail by google.

  • Anonymous

    “…there is no personally identifiable information being collected or shared here…”

    Just wondering what kind of connections there may be between user identification and g-mail by google.

  • Anonymous

    “…there is no personally identifiable information being collected or shared here…”

    Just wondering what kind of connections there may be between user identification and g-mail by google.

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