Google says user data aids flu detection

  • 25 May 2009

Google’s co-founder Larry Page has said that the European Commission’s demand for user data to be deleted after six months would prevent the site from being able to plot and predict potential pandemics.

According to a BBC report, Page said the less data internet companies like Google are able to hold about user searches “the more likely we all are to die.”

Speaking at Google’s annual European Zeitgeist conference in Hertfordshire, UK, he said that deleting search data after six months would be “in direct conflict” with the ability to map pandemics.

He added that there needed to be much more dialogue and debate around the issues of storing data.

However, the European Commission argues that holding search data creates privacy issues and runs the risk of third parties building profiles of individuals even when some identifying information is deleted.

Article 29 of the Data Protection Working Party on data retention, states: “In view of the explanations given by search engine providers on the possible purposes for collecting personal data, the Working Party does not see a basis for a retention period beyond 6 months.”

A spokesperson for Google told E-Health Insider that storing data is crucial in enabling sites, such as Google Insights for Search and Flu Trend , to predict a pandemic early.

Google says that the US site Flu Trend has the potential to predict a pandemic around 10-14 days before authorities currently can.

At Google’s European event the company demonstrated how it had used Google Flu Trends in the 2007-2208 flu season to spot flu estimate current flu levels one to two weeks faster than published Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reports. The firm now plans to offer the same tools in Europe.

The spokesperson added that there are currently different data retention timescales set for different countries in the European Union.

“The guidelines at present are that we can keep data between 6-24 months, so at the moment we are at the lower end of the spectrum.

“In 2008 Google kept data for 18 months, which was then brought down to 12 months and now we store certain anonymised data for nine months, so we are definitely working towards the recommendations by European Advisors.”

The spokesperson continued: “We have to abide by one set of policies as we are a global company and in the US the rules on data retention are not the same.”

However, the report states that despite welcoming the recent reductions in retention periods of personal data by major search engine providers “the fact that leading companies in the field have been able to reduce their retention periods suggests that the previous terms were longer than necessary.”


Data Protection Working Party Article 29

Google Flu Trends

Google Insights for Search

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