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Google: Let us keep search data or die

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Google's lobbying to avoid restrictions on its ability to retain search data took a rather sinister turn this week, with co-founder Larry Page claiming such moves mean the "more likely we all are to die".

Privacy advisers to the European Commission have suggested that search data should be wiped after six months.

But if you believe Page, those plans mean people will die.

At its Zeitgeist conference in London, he claimed web search data is a better method of tracking the spread of infectious disease than traditional methods such as the US Centers for Disease Control's reporting network of thousands of doctors.

"Our up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics and pandemics," the BBC reports he said.

But, according to Page, without more than six months' back data, this will be impossible. He said such a policy was in "in direct conflict" with Google's pandemic mapping efforts.

The firm recently claimed to track the spead of swine flu via the search terms its users entered. Writing about the work, Google's philanthropic tentacle, Google.org, asked: "So why bother with estimates from aggregated search queries?"

Why, indeed. Well... "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."

Which raises a question: 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?

We've emailed Google's press reps for an answer on this, and will update this story in the unlikely event they have one. (Someone really ought to have asked this at the conference, but El Reg never gets an invite to Zeitgeist in case we're rude.)

Google's past efforts to avoid regulation by the EU have included claims it is not covered by European law and a pledge to "anonymise" data after nine months. Telling us we're all doomed to death is a new one, however. ®

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