Amazon Alexa given new NHS health advice role: But what about patient privacy?

The NHS says the move will help patients and ease the burden on doctors - but campaigners label it "a data protection disaster waiting to happen".

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Privacy questions have been raised over a newly announced partnership between the UK National Health Service and Amazon that allows patients to ask the Alexa voice assistant for health information.

Users who asked Alexa questions relating to health were previously provided advice based on a variety of popular responses, but now the assistant will provide information based on automatic searches of the NHS Choices website.

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The NHS says the partnership with Amazon will be helpful to patients, allowing them to receive verified health information in seconds – and that it has the potential to reduce the burden on the NHS and GPs by providing information about common conditions, such as migraines, flu and chickenpox.

"We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare and technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists," said secretary of state for health Matt Hancock.

However, the announcement has been met with concern by privacy campaigners.

"Encouraging the public to give their private health details to one of the most aggressive corporate data guzzlers is astonishingly misguided," Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo told ZDNet.

"Amazon's Alexa records what people say, stores recordings in datacentres we know nothing about, and exploits our data for profit. This scheme will likely result in people being profiled and targeted by data brokers based on their deeply personal health concerns," she continued, adding: "It's a data protection disaster waiting to happen."

Labour deputy leader and shadow culture secretary Tom Watson has also voiced concerns about the prospect of Amazon partnering with the NHS.

"The giant data monopolies want one thing: more and more data to drive their huge profits. Entrusting Amazon's Alexa to dispense health advice to patients simply opens the door to the holy grail – our NHS data. This is the beginning of a Mission Creep," he said in a Tweet.

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An Amazon spokesperson told ZDNet that that the company doesn't share information with third parties and that it isn't attempting to build a health profile of those who use the voice assistant to gain health information. The company also said users have complete control over their data and can delete information if they so wish.

It was recently revealed that Amazon keeps the voice recordings produced by customers and transcripts of the audio forever – unless the user chooses to delete them manually.

This isn't the first time the NHS has faced privacy concerns over partnering with private technology companies – a previously undisclosed agreement between Google-owned artificial intelligence company DeepMind and the NHS came to light in 2016, where data was shared without patient knowledge.

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