FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE NOVEMBER 14, 2008
PATIENT PRIVACY RIGHTS & THE ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER URGE FULL TRANSPARENCY FROM GOOGLE’S FLU TRENDS INITIATIVE
This week Google announced the Google Flu Trends initiative, a new web tool that may make it possible to detect flu outbreaks before they would otherwise be reported. The initiative may achieve positive public health benefits, but there is an obvious privacy concern.
Online search histories reveal incredibly personal information, particularly when we are looking for information on our health. Sensitive information such as prescriptions, symptoms and diagnoses, if in the wrong hands, can be used to deny Americans opportunities for work, wealth and well being.
Google acquires a mind boggling amount of personal information. If we are to trust their claims that they protect privacy and all information is truly de-identified, Google must be transparent. No actual proof of the claim that any flu data is de-identified has been offered. Patient Privacy Rights (PPR) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) request that Google release the algorithms they use for de-identification to the public and scientific community for scrutiny. De-identification of health data is very hard to do. It can be done, but is very expensive and those that claim they use de-identified data must be required to prove it.
Time and time again, amateurs have proven capable of re-identifying aggregate and supposedly “de-identified” data.
The following can be attributed to Deborah Peel, MD, Founder and Chair of Patient Privacy Rights:
“This is very troubling precedent–a private corporation acting as a government surveillance arm. There are no laws or limits on what they do with all the search data they believe they own. What happens when the government asks Google to provide data on all the people searching for gun sales or gun licenses? Pick any issue, should Google be allowed to use search data any way they please?”