Google is tracking your every sniffle and sneeze beyond just the general health of your body.  If you aren’t feeling well — and i fyou have the flu, and if you happen to chance upon Google to help you find a remedy — your want to feel better is indexed, quantified, and panopticonically reported to the CDC by Google.


Does your illness belong to you or to the greater good of society?

Google believes your well-being belongs to them:

Each week, millions of users around the world search for online health information. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Trends. But can search query trends provide an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?

We have found a close relationship between how many people search for
flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms. Of
course, not every person who searches for “flu” is actually sick, but a
pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries from each state
and region are added together. We compared our query counts with data
from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC) and found that some search queries tend to
be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often
we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is
circulating in various regions of the United States.

Are you creeped out a bit that Google is taking your private search and making the result public?

Google brags their ability to track flu trends — before they formally announced they were tracking flu trends — was better than the CDC’s:

During the 2007-2008 flu season, an early version of Google Flu Trends
was used to share results each week with the Epidemiology and
Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at CDC. Across each of the
nine surveillance regions of the United States, we were able to
accurately estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than
published CDC reports.

This graph shows five years of query-based flu estimates for the
Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, compared against influenza
surveillance data provided by CDC’s U.S. Influenza Sentinel Provider
Surveillance Network. As you can see, estimates based on Google search
queries about flu are very closely matched to a flu activity indicator
used by CDC. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future
results. Our system is still very experimental, so anything is
possible, but we’re hoping to see similar correlations in the coming
year.

Google claims their flu trends tracking is anonymous, but we are also aware Google already knows everything about us and the fact that they’re reporting something means they know something specific about us that is valuable enough to evaluate and quantify and spill to the authorities.

In the exposure of Google Flu Trends, we are seeing a real time version of how Google’s panopticonic tracking works our wants and evaluates our needs and secretes our secret desires.  

We just aren’t seeing the public graphing for — “Google Menses Chocolate Wants Trends” or “Google Super Bowl Snack Chips Trends” or “Google Obama Trinket Sales Trends” — but we know that information is in Google somewhere and it is all being shaped and sold to the highest bidder for personal fortune and private profit.

21 Comments

  1. It seems like the flu – which some would constitute a health threat to the public – might constitute something worth passing on to the CDC. Is it a slippery slope to them reporting chip sales relating to the super bowl? Hard to say as most slippery slope arguments fall apart, invariably.

  2. I still find it creepy, Gordon, that whatever we search for has the potential to be reported to the government for Google’s greater plans if Google decides it is in their best interest to report those search results. We know they’re tracking everything and I want to know what they’re secretly reporting about us that might have to do with national security — like searches for “terrorism” or “bomb-making” or “weather underground.”

  3. Hi David,
    It’s slightly creepy but I guess we all know it by now.
    We are dissected and investigated always – whether it’s for or against – that’s the question.

  4. I am trying to remember where we specifically discussed this before – and that we concluded that we thought that Google was walking a very fine line and occasionally straying across it. I will now go trawl Urban Semiotic to see if I can find it.

  5. You’re right, Katha. I guess what bothers me is what Google decides to share and then tell us it is sharing. Why are they the new arbiter of public health policy and good taste? We know search results are flavored and perhaps even skewed — and I’m against that sort of direct control over content as well.

  6. Great article, David!
    In this case, I’m ok if my search was incorporated into a larger mandate for spotting outbreaks of flus and transmittable diseases so that health services can be alerted and be prepared and even prevent it from becoming an epidemic. But of course, like Gordon mentions, it’s a slippery slope.
    If enough people asked what you’re asking Google would soon have to treat its consumer-driven end of the business the same as it does its enterprise offerings.
    which means being open to SAS 70 type of audits.
    http://www.sas70.com/

  7. As far as I know, they would be allowed, David.
    Laws in India, and the processes that determine changes to them, right now, as they pertain to the Internet as with many other things, haven’t really been updated or take cognizance of the nature of modern life.

  8. That’s good to know, Dananjay. I bet Germany and the EU might not feel the same way as India.
    I also wonder if Google Flu Trends will go live — as much as it is allowed — across the world? Do we want to let Google watch out for the next pandemic and if they fail, will they be at fault for not paying proper attention?
    I wonder how accurately Google predicted the popular vote for President? You know they must have some sort of internal algorithm that quantified the intensity and frequency of voters based on region, culture and economic background and party loyalty. Why not Trend that too, and report it for us?

  9. Yes, Nicola! We did see it coming — and that’s why I’m disappointed there isn’t more outrage about these Google Flu Trends reporting. This is just the tip of what they’re discerning about us and it is eerie and uncanny.
    Would this sort of non-opt-in reporting be allowed in the UK? Or would Google have to explicitly ask you each time you did a flu-related search for permission to report you to the authorities?

  10. My search results would be very interesting !
    I am not sure what the position in the UK is. I will have to go and ask a man who does know!
    We have a supposedly strong Data Protection ethos in the UK. However knowing this country’s government they probably have not even thought of this! Their ideas are more about blocking what comes in rather than what can be collected when we go out!
    There is huge concern over the loss of private data held by government agencies and their contractors – some of which are USA based.
    We have the option to opt out of the centralized health data base being put together – it is not widely advertised but you can request that your Doctor does not submit your records to this data base.

  11. I would love to know what you discover, Nicola. So are you opted in to the database by default? Or must your doctor ask you first?
    I don’t like this “we’ll report your runny nose for you” ethos of the Google Flu Trends:
    1. Who asked you to do this and what are you getting out of it on the back end? I’m getting nothing but sicker and you’re getting a PR bonanza off my aching back?
    2. I may be “anonymous,” but you are counting me, not my neighbor, because if I didn’t have something of quantifiable metric value or you would not be recording me for submission so I’m really not anonymous since you specifically know where I am and what I’m searching for and you are reporting it to the authorities.
    I wonder how easy it would be to game the system? Get a 500 friends together and have them all do similar searches in the same pocket of the USA for “flu” and “runny nose” and “aches and pains” — and BOOM! Outbreak right there! Call the CDC and report them. But wait! Is it the Flu or Fibromyalgia? Keep looking for “Vicks NyQuil” — that’ll tell us! Has to be! They Googled for it!
    You know Google are watching other onerous searches like “Anthrax” and “Bioterrorism” and “Osama” and then reporting those “pocket trends” to the authorities as well. I mean, they’d have to, right, in order to retain the morality of the “Google Flu Trends” reportage — to NOT report searches Google believes are a threat to national security doesn’t make sense in their new light of Trends day.

  12. I have asked the question – I may go and take a look around The Register tomorrow if I have time.
    Because of my medical history I have actually opted in – anyone who treats me needs to know about my MRSA and my Lymes – much against my initial instincts – one case where my personal situation has overridden my principles.
    I was thinking about skewing the system …….. similar to google bombing in reverse.
    A lot of people could have a lot of fun with that!

  13. Sounds like a neat plan, Nicola.
    You are smart to opt in — it can only help you.
    Yes, it does seem odd for Google to tell us how they determine their Trends. I’m sure they have spoofing prevention techniques in place — but why tempt the genie?

  14. I haven’t made it to the Register yet – but I have spoken to a friend who has worked in the Home Office.
    Internet trends in general are watched – Internet visibility is noted – particularly news and blogs.
    From what he said they watch – rather than data being handed to them – so that might answer part of the question.
    I do know that BT (British Telecom) are reporting certain statistics and have been for a couple of years – specifically searches for Child Pornography where they are actively blocking sites.
    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/telecoms/article728029.ece
    Off to do some more hunting ………