Two not-for-profit privacy rights organizations have called on search engine giant Google to disclose the underlying methodology it uses in its new Google Flu Trends.
Google said in a post on its official blog earlier this month that it put a team to work last year to accurately model real-world phenomena using patterns in search queries, including public health applications.
The notice caught the attention of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation, which on Nov. 12 sent a joint letter to Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt.
The letter asked Schmidt to publish the technique that Google has adopted to protect the privacy of search queries for Google Flu Trends. As you know, there is considerable debate as to what constitutes 'anonymized' data, a point that was made clear in the recent dispute with Viacom regarding access to user data obtained by Google and is part of the ongoing debate about the status of IP addresses.
The letter continued: Please also consider that there is ample historical precedent for this concern. Census data, the quintessential form of aggregate data, was used during the Second World War to identity and then displace Japanese-Americans. The Department of Homeland Security sought information from the U.S. Census about Muslim Americans in the United States after 9-11. If Google has found a way to ensure that aggregate data cannot be reidentified, it should publish its results.
(Last month, Health IT Strategist took a long look at the use of electronic health records in the war on terror and how Congress this summer gave data-miners, as well as telecommunications companies, immunity from civil lawsuits for privacy violations.)
In a posting on its Web site, the Electronic Privacy Information Center noted that, Although Google has said that it will only reveal aggregate data, there are no clear legal or technological privacy safeguards that prevent the disclosure of individual search histories. Without such privacy safeguards Google Flu Trends could be used to re-identify users who search for medical information. Such user-specific investigations could be compelled, even over Googles objection, by court order or presidential authority.
Thus far, neither privacy organization has received a response from Google, according to Deborah Peel, the founder and chairman of the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation.