“Got kitesurfing on the mind, mixed with some search & classification tech, and a dab of political ranting”

Google Health…the start of a dangerous precedent

Posted by direwolff on May 19, 2008

Just caught VentureBeat’s post on the release of Google Health which naturally lead me to go check it out. I was greeted by a login screen, and so my “Spidey senses” started tingling. First off I welcome the idea of a vertically focused search service for health issues. As an advisor to Healia, which was recently acquired by Meredith Corporation, I learned to appreciate the value and the challenges in a vertically focused search service for health matters. What was nice about Healia is that I didn’t have to identify myself to gain a tremendous amount of value. Should I want to get more involved, the ability to join health communities was there and enabled me to self-identify with a health matter and pursue several types of activities. However, the ability to pursue certain activities anonymously was always there.

Google Health, by asking me to sign-in (since I’m a user of other Google services) or register if I’m new to Google services and they don’t find a cookie, is now able to track my use of the service (which presumably includes my searches) and associate these to my registered e-mail address. Imagine I search for something that has nothing to do with any medical condition I have, but perhaps is something my mother is suffering from, does this mean that that information gets correlated to me? Not sure, but it’s not a stretch to think that some of Google’s behavioral and contextual analysis technology would make this association. How long will it be before the insurance industry catches up to this and begins to require that I provide them access to this information if I want to get medical or life insurance? Again, not sure, but it’s not a stretch to see this possibility.

In reading the Google Health Privacy Policy there was a reference to Google’s standard Privacy Policy. Specifically interesting is the section below on Information Sharing:

Information sharing

Google only shares personal information with other companies or individuals outside of Google in the following limited circumstances:

We have your consent. We require opt-in consent for the sharing of any sensitive personal information.

We provide such information to our subsidiaries, affiliated companies or other trusted businesses or persons for the purpose of processing personal information on our behalf. We require that these parties agree to process such information based on our instructions and in compliance with this Policy and any other appropriate confidentiality and security measures.

We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request, (b) enforce applicable Terms of Service, including investigation of potential violations thereof, (c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues, or (d) protect against imminent harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law.

If Google becomes involved in a merger, acquisition, or any form of sale of some or all of its assets, we will provide notice before personal information is transferred and becomes subject to a different privacy policy.

We may share with third parties certain pieces of aggregated, non-personal information, such as the number of users who searched for a particular term, for example, or how many users clicked on a particular advertisement. Such information does not identify you individually.

Please contact us at the address below for any additional questions about the management or use of personal data.

What this basically communicates to me, is that there are situations in which Google will share my information that may be at odds with my desire to have this information shared. While it’s entirely understandable why legally they need to lay out these terms, enforcing them comes at their discretion whether or not they are right in doing so. The only person who suffers in those situations is me, or us should this apply to many people. While my general surfing habits are one thing, when we get into medical situations I believe this could create a challenging situation for all of us to be in.

Yes, it’s great that they are providing us a place to aggregate and manage our medical information, and yes it’s nice to be able to correlate this to helpful information and possible helpful diagnosis on our ailments. It’s even nice to get information on how medications may interact adversely, or even be able to re-order medications easily and find local suppliers. But at the risk of sounding like a luddite, the trade-off of the greater dangers of centralizing this information for government use or for institutional use, specifically those of the insurance industry, is totally not worth it and a slippery road we go down if people begin to adopt the use of this service.

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