Users should be wary of Google’s services

Google has finally reached the end of the line of entrepreneurship.

It seems the Internet giant might be pushing the envelope too far with a new tool that analyzes searches to observe flu trends and get the word out before users in other areas are at risk to the virus.

That tool, the Google Flu Trend, stems from Google Trend, a system that tracks the most popular Google search terms of the day.

Google Trend is one in a line of several tools offered by the Internet firm. In 2004, Google incorporated “Gmail” e-mail into its technology. By 2006, Google began offering a video database called “Google Video.” In 2007, Google partnered with T-Mobile to release the “G1” cell phone, apparently intended as the iPhone’s competitor.

The aforementioned tools seem like legitimate, harmless developments and, in theory, Google Flu Trend appears to be a godsend. Who doesn’t want to know when the next flu epidemic will break out?

I cannot help but think, though, that this charitable data collection comes at a price to privacy.

In its privacy disclaimer, Google states that each hit count is anonymized — that is, collected information is organized in such a way as to make it anonymous. But these hits could be tracked back to whoever executed the search.

Unfortunately, the average user may not be aware of these implications and is unwillingly giving Google carte blanche to do essentially what it chooses with private information.

For instance, IP addresses are linked to individual searches on virtually all search engines. These IP addresses identify the approximate physical location where the search was conducted. IP address tracking has proved useful in government investigations of criminal activity.

In collecting information that can easily be used for whatever reason, good intentions run the risk of getting lost in translation. My main concern is where a tool like Google Flu Trend draws its boundaries.

As a college student, I can attest to doing research projects for which I searched for deviant information. I would not appreciate getting a knock on my door by the feds simply because I had searched phrases such as “recent school shootings” or “weapons used in Columbine shooting.”

Of course that hypothetical situation is a bit extreme, but who’s to say that the information Google is tracking and collecting will fall into the right hands — and be used for the right reasons?

Google is slowly changing the basis of its search tool to fit a supposed need — tracking the flu trend — which does not seem to be in demand.

I am concerned that developments like this will open the door to more privacy invasions.

Google may be onto something that has the potential to benefit many. However, I feel Google Flu Trends’ debut is premature. More research and thought should go into a project with the potential to compromise users’ privacy.

At any rate, I am vouching for the old-fashioned way to prevent the flu: Get a flu shot — or, if you feel sick around flu season, get off the Internet and go see a doctor.

Rebekah Rosado is a junior double majoring in sociology and mass communications.