NHS and Amazon: what is the real cost of this partnership?

News & Analysis
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Today, the British Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a partnership between the NHS and Amazon to use the NHS’s website content as the source for the answer given to medical question, such as “Alexa, how do I treat a migraine?” 

While we welcome Amazon’s use of a trusted source of information for medical queries, we are however extremely concerned about the nature and the implications of this partnership. Amazon is a company with a worrying track record when it comes to the way they handle their users' data, as we have seen from the recent scandal that revealed how they had contracted thousands of employees to listen in on users' interactions with their Alexa device. Despite public outrage and campaigning, Amazon chose to ignore the concerns of their customers and maintain their default privacy settings that fail to protect their users.

Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us and a lot can be inferred from the questions we ask and the searches we make when we have health concerns.

This is why a partnership with a big tech company known for the ruthless exploitation of their customers’ data is is so worrying. Moreover, the Health Department has so far released very little information about the nature of this partnership. Yet, they ought to tell us what this will mean for our data and Amazon will have to clarify what steps they plan on taking to protect their users' privacy and if they will be using that data for their own commercial purposes.

While it is commendable to assist patients who are differently abled in taking control over their health, we have to ask what this partnership will mean for the many NHS patients who do not have an Alexa device. The Department of Health claims this partnership aims at assisting people who are being excluded from easily accessing information but we need to be certain this partnership will not come at a cost to those who cannot afford an Alexa device or choose not to have one, including those who do not have access to the internet.

Will this partnership means less resources will be allocated to traditional helplines and that it will become increasingly hard for elderly and blind people to access information that way? Will patients now be encouraged to rely on Alexa, instead of accessing NHS services? Those are questions we need answer to.

We believe access to authoritative health advice should never be conditional on a privacy intrusive device and Alexa is no replacement for what the NHS does best: human contact and care, this is why we demand that:

  • The department of health clarifies the nature of its partnership with Amazon and what Amazon agreed to in regards to the data collected from customers using their device for medical inquiries. 
  • Amazon treats medical inquiries with the highest possible standards when it comes to data protection. In particular, this data should not be collected for commercial purposes, it should not be stored indefinitely and should not be sent to centres for contractors to be listened in on their interactions. 
  • Amazon updates its privacy policy, which as we highlighted in the past, fails to reflect on how it uses Alexa’s users data.
  • The Department of Health guarantees that this partnership will not come along with cuts to traditional helplines and sources of information so that those who cannot afford or choose not to have an Alexa device will still be able to easily access information. 

Photo: Alan Denney/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)