Your health issues are clearly mirrored in your Google searches.

A new book points out the perils and promise of this mass of big data available to anyone willing to dig diligently for it. Elad Yom-Tov’s book, “Crowdsourced Health: How What You Do On the Internet Will Improve Medicine”, makes the point that what we do on the internet, whether it be a search or a comment on social media, can be used to discover trends in medical issues. In other words, a new kind of medical research. Some searchers, he notes, used the phrase “how to have a miscarriage,” others inquired into the use of Vitamin C or bleach or a blow to the abdomen as an abortifacient, and a small minority queried the very words “how to do a coat hanger abortion.” Yom-Tov has worked in research at IBM and Yahoo, and is currently in R & D at Microsoft. He knows whereof he speaks, with those kinds of credentials

Yom-Tov examines closely the reasoning behind why so many turn to the internet for health concerns before they consult a doctor or other health professional. Some of those reasons are:

  • The internet is always available — no appointment needed.
  • It’s free.
  • It’s basically anonymous.
  • It won’t be judgmental.

These conveniences are tempting, whether you’re looking up cures for a hangover or how to extract your own tonsils.

The author is at pains to show that this kind of internet medical data is useful for understanding and perhaps improving the health of the general population. Tom-Yov has some fascinating observations concerning his own research in the area of anorexia nervosa, for example. His argument states that the internet could be the key to comprehending this baffling disease. He makes bold to declare that not only can the posts of those suffering from the debility help researchers understand it better, but the so-called “lifestyle” and pro-anorexia websites (which he says number over 600) which promote the disease can be viewed as legitimate vectors for its spread.

He and his colleagues pose some intriguing questions in the chapter on anorexia nervosa, such as “Do skeleton-like celebrities on the internet have any influence on viewers, leading to their embrace of the characteristic binge-purge cycle?” Their research suggests that those who surf the internet in search of multiple anorexic celebrities are more prone to falling victim to the disease themselves than those who leave such searches alone. Yom-Tov suggests that the internet and the media need to own this issue and make sure that when such celebrities are held up to public view it is made clear that they have an illness, not a glamorous lifestyle.

This disturbing theory of cyber cause-and-effect will certainly need more research and study in the coming years.

So what are the perils involved in this brave new world of medical cyber information? Yom-Tov is quick to point out that compilations used for the finest of medical research can also be hacked for marketing purposes, or even more sinister purposes. The very permanence of medical data on the internet makes it a perpetual target for black hats smart enough and ruthless enough to compile their own lists. How would you like to receive a mass email that says “We know you have cancer and we’d like you to try our new miracle cure”?

As others have warned before him, Yom-Tov states that no one is completely anonymous on the internet — not if someone else is determined to breach their security.

Though slim, Yom-Tov’s book is extremely thought-provoking; when it comes to food for thought, it is a banquet. His book begs the question of Where Do We Go From Here, when it comes to researching and analyzing internet data. Beyond medical records and questions there are many other fields that organizations, even governments, might find interesting and profitable to study. How far away is Thought Control when Thought Processes on the internet are so widely available for collection and interpretation?

It appears reasonable to replace the old cliche “Pandora’s box” with the more fearsome “Google’s box”!

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