Privacy organisations raise concerns about Amazon’s use of NHS data

A report from charity Privacy International claims that a DHSC contract lacks transparency and prioritises commercial interest.
By Tammy Lovell
07:22 AM

Privacy campaigners have raised concerns about a deal between the Amazon and the Department of Health and Social Care, which allows the US firm to use NHS data free of charge.

The DHSC announced in July that it was working with Amazon to make verified health information available through its AI-powered voice assistant Alexa

Privacy International used freedom of information laws to obtain a copy of the commercial contract, which states that Amazon will be able to access all “healthcare information, including without limitation symptoms, causes, and definitions, and all related copyrightable content, data, information and other materials” on the nhs.uk website.

In its report, the charity points out that large parts of the contract have been redacted. The DHSC and Amazon claim this is to protect commercial sensitivity, but Privacy International says this shows a lack of transparency.

Sam Smith, coordinator at the privacy organisation MedConfidential, said the DHSC should have put safeguards in the contract to limit the way Alexa user’s data can be used and prevent exploitation. 

“Matt Hancock could have put the safeguards Amazon are claiming exist into the contract that Amazon wrote without them. Instead he rolled over and asked Amazon to tickle his tummy in return for some sycophancy for his tech utopia fantasy,” Smith said.

WHY IT MATTERS

Privacy International says in its report that Amazon would profit from NHS data and this “raises questions about the competition regulation of dominant players in the digital era”.

The report says: “While this particular contract may sound harmless at first – after all, it is good news if Amazon uses the NHS as a trusted source for information for medical queries – we should not be naive about the intentions of big companies that are preying over the NHS.”

THE LARGER CONTEXT

Meanwhile, UK data protection regulator the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), is assessing a Financial Times (FT) investigation which claimed UK health websites share people’s sensitive data with third party companies including Amazon.

ON THE RECORD

MedConfidential coordinator Sam Smith said: "Amazon has no restrictions on what it can do with the info that people give to Alexa as a result of the questions they give it. As far as the DHSC is concerned, that’s not its problem.”

An Amazon spokesperson said: "Amazon does not build customer health profiles based on interactions with nhs.uk content or use such requests for marketing purposes."

An NHS spokesperson said: “No patient data is being provided to this company by the NHS, which takes data privacy extremely seriously and has put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure information is used correctly.”

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Left to right: Mubashir Farooq, the digital project lead, West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership, UK, Dr Khaled Alabdulkareem, Assistant Minister of Health for Primary Health Care, Saudi Health Ministry, and Dr Suliman Alomran, medical informatics lecturer, King Saud University, KSA.

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