Social Media Monitoring May Detect Biological Outbreaks

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is beginning a yearlong biosurveillance program to spot public health trends using data available in open social networks.

by / November 12, 2012
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Social media will soon be used as an early detection tool for biological attacks. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hired Accenture to conduct a one-year, $3 million test that will attempt to spot public health trends using the data available in open social networks, company officials announced Nov. 8. Such a program would serve to help solve problems like the 2001 anthrax letters, 2003 SARS outbreak, 2009 bird flu pandemic and 2011 nuclear emergency in Japan, reported.

President Barack Obama called for a solution that would allow early detection of such outbreaks in July in a National Strategy for Biosuveillance. “This strategy further articulates that when the collection and sharing of this essential information is prioritized, decision-making can be expedited at all
levels of government and beyond,” he wrote. “While other activities are integral to everyday local biosurveillance efforts that can and should continue, our strategy calls for a national focus on fewer issues so that more can be achieved collectively. Our approach also seeks to inspire new thinking and revised methodologies to 'forecast' that which we cannot yet prove, so that timely decisions can be made to save lives and reduce impacts during an emergency incident."

A similar program led by the DHS, which attempts to use social networks to identify terrorist plots, caused some House members to sue the DHS over perceived Fourth Amendment violations. The DHS, however, contended that standards were in place to protect the privacy of the innocent. The collection of personal information was only for a narrowly defined group of people, DHS officials said in testimony, and the information was publicly available to begin with.