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Google To Track Flu Searches and Report Them to Feds?:
This report at Drudge strikes me as pretty creepy:
  GOOGLE will launch a new tool that will help U.S. 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 notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in real time.
  GOOGLE 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."
  It's legal for Google to do this: From a legal standpoint, when you send a query to google, that query belongs to them and they can voluntarily disclose it. But do we want Google establishing such a cozy relationship with the federal government? I don't. I've thought about writing an article calling for a Search Engine Privacy Act, to prevent unauthorized use and disclosure of search queries. Stories like this make me think I may put that on the front burner rather than the back burner.
Anderson (mail):
The precedent seems unpleasant. Can Google publish a particular IP address's searches for "how to make crystal meth," or "hot anal threesomes"?

From a legal standpoint, when you send a query to google, that query belongs to them and they can voluntarily disclose it

Somehow I do not recall Google's soliciting my agreement to such an arrangement, but apparently they don't need to. And if they did, we know how they'd do it.
11.11.2008 4:28pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
I wonder if there is a radio button for "Avian" ?
11.11.2008 4:29pm
MayBee:
But do we want Google establishing such a cozy relationship with the federal government? I don't.

Google's founders are close to Obama. There will be more than one type of cozy relationship with the federal government for Google.
11.11.2008 4:30pm
JoeSixpack (mail):
This should come as no surprise. Look at what they are doing in China.
11.11.2008 4:33pm
huskerfan:
Professor,

I'm curious as to why this type of surveillance bothers you but you didn't have a problem with other types of surveillance like the government's wiretapping program. Or is it the idea of a private company coddling up to the federal government? Wouldn't that be exactly what the telecomm companies did?
11.11.2008 4:33pm
Alan P (mail):
My God, what would the Government do with this information?

Provide flu vaccine and treatment more efficiently. Those bastards
11.11.2008 4:36pm
OrinKerr:
Huskerfan,

What is "the government's wiretapping program," and why do you think I "didn't have a problem with it"? Which programs? And which problems?
11.11.2008 4:37pm
John Moore (www):
People shouldn't be concerned by this in particular. Rather, it is the awesome power that Google now has through its databases . Like any power, it needs to be checked and used responsibly. This looks like a responsible use.

For those so frightened of the Bush wiretapping... that's another responsible use. It's just scary because of the power it implies. The actual program has been used properly and to save lives.
11.11.2008 4:39pm
huskerfan:
Professor,

Sorry, I wasn't very specific. The warrantless wiretapping program. You never engaged much on the issue and had a pretty strong rebuke on Judge Taylor's decision when she ruled against the government. I just thought it might be equally creepy that the government was working with private telecommunication companies that broke the law. I didn't know if there was a distinction between the two or if in that instance it was equally creepy was AT&T and other companies were doing.
11.11.2008 4:41pm
Happyshooter:
Will google also provide the federal government with the location of searchers who ask questions regarding voting GOP in the mid-term elections, or will they just keep giving political data to Obama's people directly?
11.11.2008 4:41pm
Cityduck (mail):
AlanP nails it.

Where do health care statistics come from? Is this any different than hospitals reporting aggregated statistics to the government?
11.11.2008 4:42pm
Skyler (mail) (www):
I don't see the big deal. If you don't want the feds knowing you have the flu, don't use google. There are plenty of alternatives. I don't see the problem with knowing who has the flu anyway. Personally I think this is not a method that can work too well anyway.
11.11.2008 4:43pm
New World Dan (www):
Google already publishes a lot of macroscopic search data. In fact, you can already do a query for search volume on flu and get results on which cities are searching the most.

Google Trends

And I'm hardly a google expert. My point being, this is already out there. As long as they aren't disclosing anything personally identifiable, I'm not terribly concerned.
11.11.2008 4:44pm
Curt Fischer:
Although I suppose it would be more expensive to Google, I would have less of a problem if Google just released the flu search data to the public, possibly as part of a sweet mashup with Google Maps.

I'm not sure why I feel that way, but I suppose it stems from general wariness about about close and (potentially) secret relationships between anything and the government.
11.11.2008 4:46pm
Adam B. (www):
Adam B. (www):
whoops. Meant to link to this list of the top ten searching cities on "flu" this month:

1. Minneapolis, MN, USA

2. Boston, MA, USA

3. St Louis, MO, USA

4. Denver, CO, USA

5. Austin, TX, USA

6. Reston, VA, USA

7. Pleasanton, CA, USA

8. Philadelphia, PA, USA

9. Washington, DC, USA

10. Phoenix, AZ, USA
11.11.2008 4:50pm
Wayne Jarvis:
Maybe next Google can track outbreaks of porn.
11.11.2008 4:54pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
Let me suggest this page and the others at the same site:

google-watch.org/jobad.html

On the political side of things, G has apparently hired lobbyists to push for the various things they want, they recently took a position on a CA proposition, and one of their execs testified in support of H1Bs. The last has absolutely, positively no connection to the things they promote.

Note also that the debates they conducted were setups featuring flawed, weak questions that served the same interests as what they promoted at the last link:

youtube.com/watch?v=wm0uWz2BS9M

youtube.com/watch?v=nIbDAVQMKGM

I added both of the last two videos as responses to Youtube/CNN's raw debate footage. Youtube/CNN deleted both on-topic but negative responses. YT's political director didn't respond to my request for comment. YT also later deleted all the comments from their "Citizen Tube" blog, included ones from me pointing out just how bad their debates were.

I don't suggest stopping using G, but try to avoid giving them any more power than they already have; even minor things like not using their name as a verb would work if enough people did it.
11.11.2008 4:55pm
The River Temoc (mail):
It seems to me that the key question here is whether the data is personally identifiable. If not, how is this any different reporting public health statistics collected by conventional means?
11.11.2008 4:57pm
The River Temoc (mail):
<i>On the political side of things, G has apparently hired lobbyists to push for the various things they want</i>

Of course they do -- but so what? Most Fortune 500 companies have lobbyists, so why single out Google?
11.11.2008 4:58pm
OrinKerr:
Huskerfan,

You are misremembering. I had lots and lots of problems with the NSA surveillance program. It was illegal, and in my view that is a serious, serious problem (being a lawyer and all). Judge Taylor's opinion was incredibly bad, but of course there is no connection between (a) the quality of a legal opinion on one aspect of a program and (b) the lawfulness of the program as a whole.

On the broader issue, surveillance programs are like baseball teams. The fact that you like one doesn't mean you like another one. If you know someone who likes the Red Sox, you don't also assume they like the Yankees (after all, they are both baseball teams, and aren't all baseball teams basically the same?) Every program is distinct, with different mechanisms, scope, oversight, judicial review, aims, and methods.
11.11.2008 5:01pm
merevaudevillian:
Drudge is woefully under-linked. Here is the New York Times's coverage, and here are Google's data.
11.11.2008 5:06pm
ForMeItWasEasy:
Unless they identify individuals rather than locales, what's the issue? They always "could" do this. Has anyone's rights been violated despite that fact?

While there have certainly been some abuses, to assume that every single person in the government wants to get into your knickers is just silly. They really DO have better things to do than worry about what you "google." Now, if they can ask google to check for trends, like disease queries, in a locale and those are far more than the normal expected, then they may have a clue that something is amiss...... BEFORE the Doctor and hospital reports come in after the fact and it is too late to do anything at all.

C'mon guys, everything really isn't a conspiracy to denude you of your rights. Sheesh! But should we voice some concern about potential abuse? Sure.... the keyword is *some*
11.11.2008 5:09pm
huskerfan:
Professor,

You are right. I must have been misremembering, my apologies on that. I don't think I ever read any of your posts that referred to that program was creepy. I guess I was just a little surprised by your word choice. I don't think I understood why Judge Taylor's opinion was bad. Didn't Judge Taylor rule against the government on summary judgment because the government's only argument was the state secret argument? Is that why the opinion was bad? I think that might have been the part I misunderstood. If you could provide me with the other perspective on why Judge Taylor's opinion was so bad I would greatly appreciate it.
11.11.2008 5:10pm
Anderson (mail):
Maybe next Google can track outbreaks of porn.

That would be kind of a cool map, actually. So long as it's not traceable to any, um, specific computers.

Wasn't there an obscenity trial recently where the defense introduced evidence of local computer searches as proving that "community standards" weren't terribly anti-porn?
11.11.2008 5:10pm
David Krinsky (mail):
This strikes me as analogous to government programs to track epidemics by monitoring spikes in sales of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. I believe such programs are pretty well-established.

Prof. Kerr, do you find these programs similarly problematic?

As long as the search (or purchase) data is in fact anonymous and aggregate, I don't really see the problem. And in terms of the benefits, I understand that monitoring, e.g., Imodium sales can indicate better than almost anything else where and when an epidemic of an ailment like food poisoning has struck.
11.11.2008 5:10pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
Google seems to be forgetting that whole "Don't be evil" thing.
11.11.2008 5:10pm
OrinKerr:
Huskerfan,

Judge Taylor's opinion was jumbled, rambling, bombastic, filled with irrelevant quotations, and unable to express a coherent thought. That's what was so frustrating about it: Regardless of what you thought about the proper outcome, whether of the lawfulness of the program as a whole or of the merits of the civil suit (which raised a bunch of its own procedural problems), the opinion itself was an embarrassment.
11.11.2008 5:16pm
Anderson (mail):
Judge Taylor's opinion was jumbled, rambling, bombastic, filled with irrelevant quotations, and unable to express a coherent thought

Does she have a blog, I wonder?
11.11.2008 5:18pm
Curt Fischer:
In light of the public links that multiple commenters kindly put up, I now question whether OK was correct to refer to Flue Trends as "Google establishing a cozy relationship with the federal government".

Does Flu Trends just automatically email someone at the CDC when the publicly available data passes a threshold? Or is the CDC getting some super-exclusive "scoop" on flu-related searching from Google?
11.11.2008 5:27pm
whit:
here we go again with people inventing rights. fwiw, i'd love it if Google searches were completely private. but legally speaking, there is no requirement.

the 4th amendment does not address anything remotely like google searches.

when you VOLUNTARILY (note: it's your CHOICE to use google) choose to use google, you are accessing a company's web search service. they happent to provide this service free of charge. the information you give them is not yours to keep private.

the burden is on the individual to anonymize their address and/or access google from some public computer not traceable to them if they wish the contents of their search to remain anonymous.

people seem to believe that just because stuff happens in cyberspace, that there is some sort of new right to privacy, that doesn't apply to other sorts of conversations or uses of commercial business.

if walk into a store and buy something, i don't have a "right" to prevent that store from telling other people (including the government), that i was at the store, and that i bought x,y, or z. Google is no different than that store.

we just like to PRETEND it is different.

in this particular case, google is only releasing aggregate information, but there is no reason why, if THEY want to, they can't release individual computer users searches.

if you don't want your searches disclosed, then the burden is on you (as mentioned above) to anonymize yourself. there is no "right" to search the internet anonymously.

when making private transactions at a store, you can take steps to help insure your anonymity - don't go to a local store where you know people, don't park your car near the entrance where they can read a plate, pay with cash, wear sunglasses and a hat, etc. but you still don't have a right that (if somebody recognizes you) that they can't tell the govt. or anybody else that you were there and/or you bought X (however embarassing).

so again, we'd like to pretend that there is some sort of sacrosanct right to cruise the internet anonymously. there isn't.
11.11.2008 5:33pm
Fub:
But do we want Google establishing such a cozy relationship with the federal government? I don't.
Google reporting search parameters to government also creates endless opportunities for distributed misinformation attacks against government, as described decades ago by noted information theorist Arlo Guthrie:
And friends, somewhere in Washington enshrined in some little folder, is a study in black and white of my fingerprints. And the only reason I'm singing you this song now is cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if your in a situation like that there's only one thing you can do and that's walk into the shrink wherever you are ,just walk in say "Shrink, You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant.". And walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may think it's a movement.
11.11.2008 5:37pm
merevaudevillian:
whit, I think that's why Prof. Kerr is advocating a legislative solution, not a reinvention of the Fourth Amendment.
11.11.2008 5:37pm
whit:
merevaudevillian, i recognize that's what prof. kerr was advocating. he's too smart to pretend what some others believe - that they have a legal right to private google searches.

i have a problem with prof. kerr's proposal because ... as a libertarian... i have trouble with this additional burdensome regulation on how private businesses operate.

google is a private business, providing a (free) service. who is the government to tell them they can't release this kind of information?

the solution is a MARKET BASED SOLUTION (see: libertarianism).

would you pay $$$ to anonymize your searches? good, then do so. would you pay $$$ for a search engine, if as part of their service, they contracted with users to erase/not record all individualized data?

good, then let the MARKET solve it. i don't want more heavy handed govt. regulation to protect a right that never existed before.
11.11.2008 5:48pm
OrinKerr:
Whit,

What merevaudevillian said. Plus, I wouldn't say Google can never disclose to the govt; just that it should be a process regulated by some oversight and/or judicial procedures.
11.11.2008 5:49pm
whit:
orin... what i said. i prefer a market based solution.
11.11.2008 5:52pm
24AheadDotCom (mail) (www):
There are a lot of other bits of useful information too. For instance, G could provide things like the top searched-for gun shops to find out if, for instance, there are new militias forming or something.

And, since this BHO page (change.gov/page/s/yourstory) uses a G service, G could provide BHO with things like the other pages that person has visited; that's not difficult to do since most people will have used G before clearing their cookies (if they ever do) and many other pages use one G service or another.

The possibilities are endless!
11.11.2008 5:54pm
Anderson (mail):
Hm. I am not computer savvy, but could there not be a "search engine" that merely took one's request, ran it through Google, and then gave one the result -- without Google's being any the wiser about one's having originated the request or received the results?

Google would be very annoyed of course, but I don't know what the legalities would be.

Or as Whit suggests, "Google Premium" could charge a monthly fee for private searching ... hopefully also free of ads and of the obnoxious search-your-queries-&-target-you-with-ads.
11.11.2008 5:58pm
Robert Farrell (mail):
There's a real social problem as technological innovation in form of things like infrared cameras allows us to go deeper and deeper into things traditionally considered private without transgressing traditional constitutional protections.

This doesn't seem like an example of that to me, though. The information is availible to the public, identifiers are striped out, and the purpose of the information gathering is clear and laudable. When the black helicopters come for us, I doubt it will be at the behest of power-mad epidemiologists.
11.11.2008 6:03pm
OrinKerr:
Whit,

I think there are a few problems with your theory from a libertarian perspective. One problem is that Google isn't selling a product: They are doing the government a favor because they want the government to like them and help them out down the road. The federal government is a huge client and also a regulatory threat for a company like Google, and they're going to make nice with the government as best they can. As a result, this is a form of lobbying for government benefits, not an example of free market economics.
11.11.2008 6:06pm
whit:

Hm. I am not computer savvy, but could there not be a "search engine" that merely took one's request, ran it through Google, and then gave one the result -- without Google's being any the wiser about one's having originated the request or received the results?


there are already metasearch sites that do roughly the same thing. iow, you enter a search term and they return queries from a # of search engines. of course the metasite has your info, but the point is valid. the market has multiple ways of solving this problem.

here's a metasearch engine btw.


www.surfwax.com


again, people are asking for something. or at least people HERE are. let the market provide a solution.

and let the consumers decide how they want to search, and what the market will bear for pricing in private and anonymous searching
11.11.2008 6:11pm
whit:

think there are a few problems with your theory from a libertarian perspective. One problem is that Google isn't selling a product:


yes they are. their SEARCH is the product. you are not paying (in cash) for it. but it is a product. do you use lexisnexis? they do the same thing, for a price.


They are doing the government a favor because they want the government to like them and help them out down the road. The federal government is a huge client and also a regulatory threat for a company like Google, and they're going to make nice with the government as best they can. As a result, this is a form of lobbying for government benefits, not an example of free market economics


except when you go to google and search (non-anonymously) you are giving them info. what THEY CHOOSE to do with that information is the FREE market at work. you just don't like what they may choose to do with it, so you want to use the heavy hand of legislation to tell a private company how to run their business.

again, if anonymous searching is desired, then look for a market solution OR create one yourself. stop using govt. regulation to hinder businesses. THAT is a libertarian way of thinking. i note that many libertarians are very libertarian when it comes to individuals but suddenly get all "big government" when it comes to corporations. sorry, that doesn't fly.

it doesn't matter WHY google wants to (if they decide to) sell/give private search info to the government (or anybody else). that's THEIR decision.

it's THEIR information to give/sell... NOT yours.

if you don't want to give it to them ... DON'T. that's your locus of control. anonymize yourself, use somebody else's computer, etc.

but lets not get govt. involved in mo0re regulation.
11.11.2008 6:16pm
Mike S.:
Or, maybe Google is doing the government a favor not because they want future favors, but because they think that helping public health authorities fight flu epidemics is, in and of itself, a good thing for society. If they thought that, I'd agree with them.
11.11.2008 6:31pm
OrinKerr:
Whit,

Obviously the search engine function of google is a product. But the scheme to generate flu data to provide to the government strikes me as a distinct program.

As for the free market argument, I don't think I come across the suggestion that laws prohibiting cooperation with the government is problematic from a libertarian perspective. I'm curious, do you think that laws prohibiting bribery of public officials are problematic from your perspective? If I have a business and I need something from the government to help my business, do you think I should be able to bribe officials to get what I need? Put another way, do you see bribery laws as government "red tape" and regulation that interferes with the free market?
11.11.2008 6:33pm
genob:
"except when you go to google and search (non-anonymously) you are giving them info. what THEY CHOOSE to do with that information is the FREE market at work. you just don't like what they may choose to do with it"

Can you really tell from www.google.com that this is the consideration you are giving to Google in exchange for their search service?

And it's only in the last couple of months that Google even added a link to their privacy policy (which is also very difficult to understand for anyone not versed in the langauge of the internet.)

So if it is "their" information, maybe they obtained it through a less than clear bargain.
11.11.2008 6:35pm
whit:

Can you really tell from www.google.com that this is the consideration you are giving to Google in exchange for their search service?

And it's only in the last couple of months that Google even added a link to their privacy policy (which is also very difficult to understand for anyone not versed in the langauge of the internet.)

So if it is "their" information, maybe they obtained it through a less than clear bargain.



here's where we may agree. i would have no problem with govt. regulation requiring google, etc. to NOTIFY users of their website that their information may be disclosed to others. there is one area of govt. regulation, where even as a liberatarian, i generally support some reg's. that's when it comes to information. i'm all for food labeling, etc. for example, because it doesn't take away choice (from the consumer) and doesn't tell business it can't do X or sell Y, only that it has to tell people what's in Y.

i think that, in general, when consumers are provided with information they may or not make the right choice, but as long as it's informed... it's their fault if they do so.

i want to be able to have the CHOICE to eat big macs and/or transfat laden food, etc. but i have no problem with the govt. requiring labeling, so I know what's in the food, so i can make an educated choice to (occasionally) eat crappy food.
11.11.2008 6:55pm
Mikhail Koulikov (mail) (www):
Prof. Kerr,

At this point, it doesn't look like anyone has brought up this argument, so I will at least try.

The distinction between 'the government' and 'everyone else' is valid, but also somewhat artificial. Idealistic as it may sound, perhaps whoever at Google is in charge of this program has decided that it is his or her duty as a citizen of a country to aid the country's government/authorities in identifying and preventing threats to it (the country.) This is to say, basically, that maybe Google is not being a good "corporate citizen" - but this program makes Google's employees good *citizens.*

Far too often, there is an attempt to establish a duality between 'the government' and 'everyone else.' But, becoming a government employee does not make you part of another species, or somehow radically different from the guy down the block, and on a more philosophical level, isn't support of not only specific government policies but also, the general "good of the country" a part of the implied social contract?

- Mikhail Koulikov (GWU '99)
MLS candidate (expected, 12/2008)
School of Library and Information Science
Indiana University, Bloomington
11.11.2008 7:00pm
Fub:
whit wrote at 11.11.2008 5:48pm:
would you pay $$$ to anonymize your searches? good, then do so. would you pay $$$ for a search engine, if as part of their service, they contracted with users to erase/not record all individualized data?
No need for Google, or any other search engine to offer anonymity for a fee, though they certainly could if they wished.

Any search engine server sees the IP address of the querying host. So, an anonymous proxy server will deliver its IP to the search server, not yours.

The free market already provides a solution.
11.11.2008 7:14pm
mike d:
There is already a functioning Google scraper called scroogle that scrapes Google and uses no cookies, keeps no search term logs and deletes access logs within 48 hours. As a bonus they also eliminate advertisements placed by Google. www.scroogle.org
11.11.2008 7:25pm
AnonymousBob (mail):
Whit (et al)

Anonymous searcing and browsing already exists with free software developed by big-government (I believe it was the Navy)

TOR (The Onion Router) is available for download from the EFF site It bounces all your traffic through a chain of at least 5 routers all over the world
11.11.2008 7:32pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
Google garbage in, Google garbage out. This plan is among the most idiotic I've heard. A lay person gets cold symptoms, worries that he has influenza, and searches the Internet. A woman in Omaha learns that her mother in a nursing home in Seattle has pneumonia symptoms. Her search also includes sites discussing influenza.

Hundreds of thousands of such searches will occur every day during cold and flu season. No one will know if the searcher actually has any illness at all. The Google to CDC flu connection will waste time and money and result in misdirected anti-flu efforts.
11.11.2008 7:39pm
pauldom:
Dr. T, you might be right. Then again, there's this info from the NYT coverage:

Google Flu Trends gets around privacy pitfalls by relying only on aggregated data that cannot be traced back to individual searchers. To develop the service, Google's engineers devised a basket of keywords and phrases related to the flu, including thermometer, flu symptoms, muscle aches, chest congestion and many others.

Google then dug into its database, extracted five years of data on those queries and mapped the data onto the C.D.C.'s reports of "influenza-like illness," which the agency compiles based on data from labs, health care providers, death certificates and other sources. Google found an almost perfect correlation between its data and the C.D.C. reports.

We'll see whether that correlation holds up, and whether the google trends offer any advantage over other tracking methods.
11.11.2008 7:47pm
whit:
excellent! i had heard about anonymizers but did not realize they were so easy/readily available.

here's what it comes down to ... caveat googlor
11.11.2008 7:57pm
GMUSL Grad:
whit @ 11.11.2008 6:55pm

You're a poor libertarian! (he said, somewhat in jest ... :) ) Why would you ask for heavy-handed regulation to force disclosure of information? Shouldn't we expect a market participant to note this lack of information and weigh that accordingly? Misinformation is one thing, but the mere lack of information? Doesn't the free market take care of the situation where you can invest your money in some shady scheme some guy you don't know proposed to you on the phone, or in some information that lays its records open for you to review?
11.11.2008 8:31pm
Splunge:
[Deleted by OK on civility grounds. Splunge, if you have an argument to make, I do hope you will make it.]
11.11.2008 8:45pm
Elliot123 (mail):

Google is aggregating flu related search terms by geographic area. They are providing this to the feds in an effort to track flu progress. Can someone tell me what the problem is?

If they made public a list of search term frequency by area, would that be a problem?

If doctors report flu cases to the CDC is that a problem? How about hositals? Problem? A hospital is local to an area. So is a doctor.

Is anyone's privacy being jeopardized? Whose?
11.11.2008 8:45pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I just learned from Google that in the month of October 2008, Raliegh, North Carolina led the nation in searches for the term "headache."

Why should anyone be concerned that I now have that information? (And now all of you hve it, too.)
11.11.2008 9:01pm
NYOPINION (mail):
the legal issue is contractual (shrink wrap/click wrap/EULA) - check out Google's new (only up since Aug. 08, I believe)"privacy" policy - the link is next to the copyright notice on the main search page - if you have loads of time on your hands, you may even wade through the tangle of hyperlinked incorportation by reference
11.11.2008 9:55pm
Lil (mail):
It's not that they are tracking 'flu' searches. Its the concern about what they will track for the government in the future. Google searches for 'guns'? Sex? The Constituion? Anti-Obama screeds?

Let's all type in "flu symptom" once a day and really screw up their system! RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!
11.11.2008 10:53pm
TokyoTom (mail):
Orin, I'm not sure I understand your concern fully, but I welcome you raising for consideration, particularly as a way to heighten awareness among web users and to create pressure on Google to clarify the scope of its cooperation with the CDC and of user consents.

But I share Whit's concern about a legislative "solution". This hardly seems an area where we need to outlaw voluntary (and non-contract violating)cooperation with government, and legislative action might very well be a recipe for express (and more pernicious) rent-seeking.
11.11.2008 11:05pm
Don't Panic:
Torrifying one's Internet use would be a solution for those concerned with such tracking.
11.11.2008 11:41pm
Don't Panic:
Oops. Looks like AnynomousBob beat me to it. Great minds. Though, of course, the thing to watch out for is the potential for regulation either on the government-side as is the case in Germany or on the supply side through increasing costs to those hosting the Tor nodes by the ISPs.
11.11.2008 11:50pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"It's not that they are tracking 'flu' searches. Its the concern about what they will track for the government in the future. Google searches for 'guns'? Sex? The Constituion? Anti-Obama screeds?"

I just learned from Google that in the month of November 2008, Salt Lake led the nation in searches for the term "guns." Hamden, Virginia led for "sex."

So what?
11.12.2008 12:37am
Kevin P. (mail):
After Pearl Harbor, the US Census Bureau, despite laws protecting the confidentiality of individual census records, provided the US government with both:

1) Aggregated reports on Japanese-Americans, i.e. You will find x numbers of Japanese on this particular city block, but we won't tell you exactly who they are and which houses they live in.

2) Actual names and addresses of Japanese Americans in some cases.

The FDR administration used this information to round up Japanese Americans, some of whom were US citizens, and intern them without charges during the war.

Think of Google as a present day US Census Bureau and don't let them get ahold of any your data that could result in problems for you in the near and distant future. A useful form of technology is Tor, which routes your network traffic anonymously. Even better, use a different search engine altogether.
11.12.2008 2:01am
Ben S. (mail):
Not to cross-contaminate from other threads, but arguably this is further evidence that 9/11 was not a conspiracy: Surely a government that perpetuated a disgusting attack on American citizens would have no hesitation in rounding up those who seem a bit too "eager" to research 9/11 conspiracy theories on Google, no?
11.12.2008 5:06am
Bill Harshaw (mail) (www):
I can't buy the bribery parallel--Google may be helping CDC, but it's probably Justice/SEC/FTC who have the most power over them. This seems more like a public service, buffing the corporate image and all.

When companies donate goods and services for various public causes/emergencies, we don't criticize. To me, the only bothersome aspect would be the secrecy of the arrangement, but in this case we don't have any. If Orin wants to legislate full transparency, that's fine.
11.12.2008 8:26am
googler (mail):
"My God, what would the Government do with this information? Provide flu vaccine and treatment more efficiently. Those bastards."

Exactly. It's not like Google is providing the government with the names and addresses of people who might be spreading the AIDS virus.

Wait ... wouldn't that be a good thing. After all, AIDS kills people. Shouldn't people who search about symptoms of AIDS be tracked down to, you know, ensure that they aren't spreading the virus to others unintentionally.

You know, it would be an "outreach program for AIDS sufferers." You couldn't possibly be against outreach for AIDS sufferers could you? Why, that would be inhuman.

So, we should encourage Google. One day, everyone who searches for flu symptoms, or AIDS symptoms, can be visited by Gooverment. Then, they can be given an AIDS test. Their activities can be tracked to ensure they aren't spreading the disease.

You aren't against ending AIDS, are you?
11.12.2008 8:32am
Dana:
goggler- The CDC already gets the NAMES of people with AIDS. Why would they need IP addresses? And their activities are tracked- ever hear of "partner notification"?

Anyway, I agree that there's potential for abuse, but that will exist whether or not flu-related searches are tracked. The thing is, this is the closes we'll ever get to predicting an outbreak. And that is very important because in the event of a big outbreak the flu can strain medical resources. A week lead time is a huge, huge advantage.

Bed shortages at hospitals do occur, and hospital inventories are only a couple of days deep. Antiviral drugs run out at the pharmacies not infrequently. So, unless you want to be told "sorry, come back tomorrow" for your Tamiflu (when it will be much less effective) or be sent far away from home to be hospitalized because your hospital is understaffed, you should really be in favor of this.
11.12.2008 10:05am
Bryan C (mail):
I don't have a problem with this. Google's business is tracking search results and aggregating data. They collect Am I supposed to be shocked that they have the audacity to use their data instead of hoarding it in a broom closet?

It looks like a good fit, too. Epidemiology is all about gathering and correlating data and finding trends. That's the main purpose of the CDC. Most flu surveillance methods can only catch people who actually go to a doctor. The CDC and some local efforts are also following the lead of some other countries by tracking purchases of certain OTC medications. Knowing when people are sick enough to go to a doctor or buy medicine is good, but if you're trying to head off the next epidemic then knowing sooner is even better. And here's a search engine with this huge pool of anonymized, voluntarily collected data just sitting there waiting to be crunched. It'd be silly for them not to use it.
11.12.2008 10:20am
Connie:
In the 1990s, Milwaukee tap water was contaminated with chlorosporidium, a bacterium that causes diarrhea. The leading clue to the epidemic, before doctors put the pieces together, was that pharmacies saw a huge uptick in sales of toilet paper and anti-diarrheals.
11.12.2008 10:40am
Elliot123 (mail):
Interesting. So, if Walgreens used its computerized inventory systems to alert the CDC of spikes in over-the-counter flu medications by area, would we need legislation for that? (Note that many of those purchases would be via credit or debit number.)
11.12.2008 11:04am
googler (mail):
Bryan,

Would you still be OK with it if the information wasn't anonymized? Would you still be OK with it if Google reported to the government other kinds of searches? What about STDs? What about colds? What about searches on the phrase "Obama is a Muslim"?
11.12.2008 11:06am
Metoo:
That's right, nothing to see here. Move along folks. Go back to watching TV and listing to your Ipod.
11.12.2008 11:29am
Crust (mail):
OrinKerr:
They [Google] are doing the government a favor because they want the government to like them and help them out down the road. The federal government is a huge client and also a regulatory threat for a company like Google, and they're going to make nice with the government as best they can. As a result, this is a form of lobbying for government benefits, not an example of free market economics.
That strikes me as a rather cynical point of view. Surely it is at least a contributing motivation to promote the public good by helping detect flu epidemics more quickly, thereby speeding up intervention and reducing sickness. I doubt being on good terms with the CDC will help Google that much with other parts of the federal government.
11.12.2008 1:04pm
pauldom:
To me, google's actions are less objectionable than libraries reporting what their patrons read.

I don't care what kind of aggregate search data get shared, but I would mind if the searches were linked to individuals.
11.12.2008 1:08pm
Crust (mail):
To be clear, as I read this (from the NYT and Google.org not the unreliable Drudge), Google is not giving any information to the CDC they aren't giving to the public at large. And they're only publishing aggregate information, not individual identities. So I don't see any concerns here that are different for any other search term.
11.12.2008 1:11pm
Crust (mail):
Ben S., nice try, but part of the conspiracy is to hide the fact that they are rounding up people who are researching the conspiracy. ;)
11.12.2008 1:45pm
whit:

Think of Google as a present day US Census Bureau and


except that the US census bureau is a govt. entity,and google isn't.

and as i repeatedly point out there is a HUGE difference between govt. agencies (that can compel info, amd that numerous constitutional restrictions apply to etc.) and Google, which people provide info to voluntarily and can take steps to anonymize their data.
11.12.2008 2:25pm
enfo (www):
C'mon guys. It's harmless aggregate data. Though the poster Kevin P. made a good point on how aggregate data could be misused in the past, I don't believe in the case of this flu thing, it would.

The flu trends are not just available only to the federal government but anyone. I was pretty excited that I could just waltz on their website and download the data, and I might even use it to test a model of network contagion and diffusion.

Social science researchers in general, including those at Google labs are keenly aware of how identifiying information could affect privacy rights. You guys should see the kind of hoops we jump through to get our hands on harmless data that has just zip code tacked on to the respondent observations.
11.12.2008 3:26pm
hdhouse (mail) (www):
I, though my business, deal with Google data and technology on a regular basis. First, they always to my knowledge and experience deal well within all laws and are professional and ethical.

Some other data miners have equally extensive data, not to mention our government that dwarfs their capacities and extent.

Frankly, be happy it is Google.
11.13.2008 6:11am
Adam J:
googler- interesting point... so because this technology can be used for malevolent purposes as well as beneficial ones, we should clearly ban it. Sounds alot like gun-banning arguments.
11.13.2008 9:53am
billy bob (mail):
When you give an organization, company, or person your private information, they will eventually abuse that power. Whether that's a government agency or a for-profit public company like Google they will eventually abuse that power. Therefore, the only recourse is not to let them have that power in the first place.
11.20.2008 10:09am