When it comes to a disease as awful as cancer, early detection is the key to effective treatment.
So what if detection was as easy as going through your internet search history?
Sounds a bit creepy, right? But researchers at Microsoft and Columbia University published a paper this week claiming it’s possible to identify people suffering from pancreatic cancer based on their search engine history, even before their doctors do.
Focusing their research on Bing, Microsoft’s search engine and Google's competitor, the researchers looked into searches about specific symptoms that could point to pancreatic cancer. According to their research, they can identify 5-15% of pancreatic cancer cases through this method, with only one in 100,000 receiving a false positive diagnosis.
What could be done with this information?
If patients grant permission to monitoring agencies to keep tabs on their searches, it could assist doctors in catching pancreatic cancer well ahead of the patient's next appointment.
"Oncologists welcome new developments in diagnosis and management but always need to be aware of creating false hope in the minds of our patients," Dr Ranjana Srivastava, Australian oncologist and medical columnist, tells SBS.
"While we await scientific achievements in our lifetime, it's still important to remember the basics: being mindful of one's symptoms and seeking and having timely access to healthcare."
But this isn’t the first time web data has been able to point to a person’s state of health before it's out in the open.
In 2012, Target was aware a teenage girl was pregnant before her father was. The father complained to the company after catalogues and coupons about maternity and baby products were sent to their home, addressed to his young daughter. Later the father learned his daughter was in fact pregnant.
Facing the online trove of our personal data that could be mined for various purposes can be terrifying. (Just take a look at the video below.) But if allowing statisticians to monitor your search history could save your life, perhaps the risks would be worth it?
Perhaps, with careful regulation, there might be a way to harness the power of the internet when it comes to making diagnoses in the future. But for the time being, we remain sceptical.
"These are early days and it's quite clear that the technology, the ethics, and the way we ultimately harness the data need finessing," advises Dr Srivastava.