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Give Google your data or die

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Wed, May 20, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Believe it or not, Google’s co-founder Larry Page says that the Internet giant needs to retain your search data more than six months in order to save lives.

    Privacy advisors to the European Commission have said such information should be purged from Google’s servers after six months. Page made his claims this week at Google’s Zeitgeist conference in England and called for more dialogue with regulators.

    According to the BBC, "Page said the less data companies like Google were able to hold the ‘more likely we all are to die’".

    He was referring to Google’s new service Google Flu trends.  The site claims:

    "We’ve found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in your state up to two weeks faster than traditional systems."

    Google explains the need for the service like this:

    "CDC uses a variety of methods to track influenza across the United States each year. One method relies on a network of more than 1500 doctors who see 16 million patients each year. The doctors keep track of the percentage of their patients who have an influenza-like illness, also known as an "ILI percentage." CDC and state health departments collect and aggregate this data each week, providing a good indicator of overall flu activity across the United States.

    "So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries? It turns out that traditional flu surveillance systems can take time to collect and release surveillance data, but Google search queries can be automatically counted very quickly. By making our flu estimates available each day, Google Flu Trends may provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza."

    That prompted The Register’s Chris Williams to ask:

    "If the point of using web searches to track disease is that the data is instantly available, how does data that is more than six months old help, let alone make us all less likely to die?"

    Good question, I’d say. So far no answer from Google. Would it be fair to add that there are now three things certain in life: death, taxes and Google?

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