Your Search Engine Might Be Able to Detect Your Cancer Before You Do


Turns out, the internet cares about your well-being. Aww. 

Melanie Ehrenkranz/Mic

Microsoft scientists discovered that your search engine questions may be able to identify if you are suffering from pancreatic cancer before you've even been diagnosed, the New York Times reported.

The researchers looked at Bing searches (naturally, they are Microsoft scientists) of users (who remained anonymous) whose searches pointed to a recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. They then worked backwards, looking back "many months" ahead of these queries to look at patterns of symptoms, according to the paper published in the Journal of Oncology Practice.

"We found that signals about patterns of queries in search logs can predict the future appearance of queries that are highly suggestive of a diagnosis of pancreatic adenocarcinoma," the paper stated.

Melanie Ehrenkranz/Mic

The researchers were able to identify 5% to 15% of the cases with an "extremely" low false-positive rate of 0.00001 to 0.0001, meaning the chance of telling someone that they probably have pancreatic cancer when they actually don't is very low. 

"I think the mainstream medical literature has been resistant to these kinds of studies and this kind of data," Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz told the New York Times. "We're hoping that this stimulates quite a bit of interesting conversation."

Interesting, indeed. This study shows that there is potential to diagnose a disease based on your web searches. The sooner cancer is detected the better; early screening could increase survival rate. 

Researchers can explore symptom patterns to pinpoint a specific disease. The obstacle, then, is anonymity. In this study's case, users were examined anonymously. If using the search bar to diagnose disease is going to work, a scientist or medical company (or maybe even Google) will need access to all of your searches so they know who to contact if your queries are flagged as potentially cancerous. 

What's scarier: a deadly disease or someone reading your search queries?