A pilot project currently in development at Google will enable health officials to spot outbreaks of deadly food borne illnesses 7 to 10 days faster than the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) current system.
Google accomplishes this by tracking queries entered into its search engine by people who are trying to find information on symptoms and sicknesses they’re experiencing. Google has already launched Flu Trends, which tracks search queries like “flu symptoms” and identifies geographic areas where those queries are spiking.
The data Google collects matches the flu trends published by the CDC, suggesting Google’s information is accurate. Now Google is planning to apply this system to E. coli and salmonella outbreaks so that the source of the contamination can be contained much more rapidly than it is today.
Seems like a great idea, right? Not everyone is so excited. Privacy advocates have already raised the alarm, warning that any database that collects and tracks the behavior of such a large number of free citizens will inevitably lead to abuse.
Google counters that this information is for the greater good and that individuals will remain anonymous. Of course, anonymity has been promised before when it comes to large databases and it seems like there’s always a leak. Just ask the thousands of Americans who have had their financial information compromised by leaks and hacks in the past two years.
For the food service industry, Google’s trend tracker could be a double-edged sword. Of course, food safety is always a primary concern for restaurateurs. But what if Google, in the admittedly honorable process of identifying a contamination source, starts naming restaurants frequented by people who are getting sick? Those businesses would be dead and gone in a matter of minutes, regardless of the level of responsibility they deserved for the outbreak.
So where should such a powerful tool draw the line? And where is Google planning on drawing that line? The technology is still so new it’s impossible to tell yet, but as the data we enter into the world’s most popular and powerful search engine gets used to track our behaviors, the conflict between privacy and information seems more and more inevitable.