Flu season is almost upon us. Google "flu" or "flu symptoms" and you are likely to have been picked up by the new Google surveillance system that aims to become an early warning system for regional flu outbreaks and trends across the United States. The New York Times recently reported (and blogged) about the Google.org web tool, called Google Flu Trends, which may be able to save lives.
There are no doubt questions about how well this tool will can reliably predict flu outbreak before people visit the doctor. But it is exciting to hear yet another way that Google is attempting to provide some public health improvements and innovation.
We all know that our Internet use is not exactly private knowledge. But does this surveillance cross the line? I would argue, no. I see little to no harm in Google relaying aggregate data of flu symptom searches from its site to public health organizations. But, would people feel differently if it was monitoring searches for "HIV symptoms" or "HPV symptoms"?
Mobile technology, the internet, and Web 2.0 is increasing in use by people of all ages and incomes. This provides public health practitioners with new opportunities to target outreach and education activities more effectively and to harness the power and creativity of people to change social norms and improve social support. I look forward to seeing where the intersection of internet technology and public health meet next.