U.S. President Barack Obama has been explaining the value of spying on the American public throughout history, as a way of deflecting concern about his administration and government overreach. Critics will dismiss his claims along the lines of 'why it was wrong when Bush did what I do but it is right for me to do it now' rationalization, so he should instead leverage the value spying has in public health.
Traditional surveillance methods for detecting infectious diseases such Dengue Fever and Influenza take weeks because it relies on doctors reporting cases. Today, people tend to Google for an online diagnosis before visiting a GP and a paper in Lancet Infectious Diseases says Internet-based surveillance can be a big help.
Take that, people who don't believe the NSA should be hijacking your webcams. Analyzing Google searches isn't even illegal.
Senior author Dr. Wenbiao Hu of
Queensland University of Technology
says spikes in searches for information about infectious diseases could accurately predict outbreaks of that disease.
"This is because traditional surveillance relies on the patient recognizing the symptoms and seeking treatment before diagnosis, along with the time taken for health professionals to alert authorities through their health networks," Hu said. "In contrast, digital surveillance can provide real-time detection of epidemics."
Using digital surveillance through search engine algorithms such as Google Trends and Google Insights, detecting the 2005-06 avian influenza outbreak "Bird Flu" would have been possible between one and two weeks earlier than official surveillance reports.
"In another example, a digital data collection network was found to be able to detect the SARS outbreak more than two months before the first publications by the World Health Organisation (WHO)," Hu said.
"Early detection means early warning and that can help reduce or contain an epidemic, as well alert public health authorities to ensure risk management strategies such as the provision of adequate medication are implemented."
Social media and micoblogs including Twitter and Facebook could also be effective in detecting disease outbreaks.
"There is the potential for digital technology to revolutionise emerging infectious disease surveillance," Hu said. "While this study has looked at the effectiveness of digital surveillance systems retrospectively, Australia is well-placed to take the lead in developing a real-time infectious disease warning surveillance system.
"The next step would be to combine the approaches currently available such as social media, aggregator websites and search engines, along with other factors such as climate and temperature, and develop a real-time infectious disease predictor."
He said it was also important for future research to explore ways to apply Internet-based surveillance systems on a global scale.
"The international nature of emerging infectious diseases combined with the globalization of travel and trade, have increased the interconnectedness of all countries and means detecting, monitoring and controlling these diseases is a global concern."