Google Flu Trends spreads privacy concern

Google’s new Flu Trends tool, which collects and analyzes search queries to predict flu outbreaks around the country, is raising concern with privacy groups. Is the data truly de-identified?

The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking federal officials to disclose how much user search data the company has recently transmitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, as part of its Google Flu Trends effort.

Concern stems from what privacy groups claim is a disturbing lack of transparency surrounding the method Google is using to predict flu outbreaks. Google has publicly stated that all the data used is made anonymous and is aggregated, but there has been no independent verification of how search queries are used and transformed into data for Google Flu Trends, said the privacy groups.

“What we are basically saying is that if Google has found a way to ensure that aggregate search data cannot be used to re-identify the people who provided the search information, they should be transparent about that technique,” said Marc Rotenberg, Electronic Privacy Information Center’s president.

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