Is letting Google save the world worth the effort?
Has Google been the only party to benefit from the swine flu debacle? A few weeks ago this would be a very unlikely conclusion to make: after all, Google Flu Trends, the company’s flagship flu predicting service based on the frequency of Google searchers for specific flu-related terms proved to be of very little use. ...
Has Google been the only party to benefit from the swine flu debacle? A few weeks ago this would be a very unlikely conclusion to make: after all, Google Flu Trends, the company’s flagship flu predicting service based on the frequency of Google searchers for specific flu-related terms proved to be of very little use. By the time the Web-savvy Mexicans took to the Web to search for “tamiflu”, CNN et al were already on the case (not much surprise here: people who are in direct contact with pigs- i.e. farmers – are much less likely to be avid Google users and thus generate some unique insights into the nature of the epidemic).
But even despite these reservations, I do entertain the possibility that Google may have learnt about the increasing prospects of a swine flu epidemic much earlier than the rest of us did, in which case it was, umm, a bit irresponsible for them not to tell us immediately (for once, I would have been able to enjoy pork chops in Cairo where I am at the moment :-).
So imagine my surprise when I found that Google has managed to turn tables on this debate and claim that one of the main reasons why they have been ineffective at predicting the outbreaks of epidemics like swine flu is the existence of the very tough European Data Retention Directive, which requires telecommunication companies to delete data in a period that can range from 6 to 24 months from the day of the recording.
Google’s argument is very simple but elegant: they need to keep data on file for more than six months for it to produce any meaningful results like predicting epidemics more accurately than the government agencies. According to a BBC news story, Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, went as far as to say that “the less data companies like Google were able to hold the “more likely we all are to die”.
But is more accuracy worth the greater invasion of our privacy, even if this accuracy can save lives? Paul Currion of Humanitarian thinks that the answer is not as simple as Mr Page makes it seem, arguing that technology companies should not be allowed to determine our public policy agenda or influence our decision-making:
We hear many statements like this as Web 2.0 slouches towards technotopia to be born, and the more we hear them, the more we should question them. Certainly technology provides us with a huge range of benefits, but claims like the one above don’t do anybody any favours, particularly when they are so transparently self-serving. By happy coincidence, apparently, Google’s desire to monopolise your data coincides with Google’s desire to save your life!
The fundamental problem with people working in the technology sector is that they believe that societies can be fixed in a similar way to software. If only we had the data, Mr Page laments, we could save more lives. We”ll have a hard time demonstrating a causal link between the length of time Google keeps data and lives saved, but that may well be the case; the question is whether our lives are worth the price we pay for that data.
But wait! you cry, you can’t put a price on peoples’ lives! Unfortunately you can, and we do, and that’s the entire basis of public health initiatives of all kinds. So the social cost of permitting Google to keep our data for as long as it damn well wants must play a role in our decision-making, and we shouldn’t let technology (and particularly technology companies) determine our policy decisions. Out in the real world, problems are more complex than the data allow.
I wholeheartedly agree with Paul. Furthermore, I think that this is definitely one of those examples where Google is stretching their “do no evil” mantra to read more like “do a lot of good”, while also leaving the door open for a lot of evil to be caused, should their data centers be compromised.
Still, I am amazed at how fast and ruthlessly Google has managed to transform a global scare like Swine Flu into an influential policy instrument, making the European bureacrats look like technophobes who want all of us to suffer and die in pains…
Photo by Dullhunk/Flickr
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