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Can Facebook or Twitter reveal the spread of the ordinary cold or a possibly deadly pandemic? The U.S. Department of Homeland Security wants to find out by monitoring popular social media networks in a yearlong project.
The project will search for disease-related warning signs by using publicly available data found through Facebook, Twitter and blogs, according to news site NextGov. Accenture, a global consulting firm, won a $3 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to set up a pilot program that will try to predict possible public health crises.
"Rapidly collecting and understanding what information is being shared will help OHA [Office of Health Affairs] meet its mission to detect and respond to potential threats to national health security,” said John Matchette, head of Accenture's Public Safety agency work.
Such a plan could theoretically provide better surveillance of incidents such as the 2001 anthrax letters, the 2003 SARS outbreak or the 2009 bird flu pandemic. But NextGov points out that Homeland Security's online monitoring efforts have also sparked concern from some members of Congress and the public about whether they violate free speech and privacy rights.
Private companies have already begun using the idea of online tools or social media to track disease trends — startups such as Sickweather scour social networks to track everything from depression to the stomach flu. Internet search giant Google uses people's online searches to track flu trends.