Giving away a treasure trove of health data
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is a self-professed tech geek who offers an app for his constituents and has previously endorsed remote healthcare startup Babylon Health, so it’s no surprise that he was celebrating headlines like “Amazon Alexa offering NHS health advice
As the BBC reports:
Under the partnership, Amazon’s algorithm uses information from the NHS website to provide answers to questions such as, “How do I treat a migraine?” and, “What are the symptoms of chickenpox?”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was right for the NHS to “embrace” technology in this way, predicting it would reduce pressure on “our hard-working GPs and pharmacists”.
“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare,” he added.
So there’s nothing particularly hi-tech happening here. The Alexa skill simply searches the NHS Choices website in response to health queries, and returns the most relevant result. This may be useful for some people but it won’t revolutionise healthcare. Still, you can see why it’s been done — making healthcare information as accessible as possible is ostensibly an honourable goal.
The real story here is how this has been rolled out with little public scrutiny as to what will happen to the data.
The BBC again:
Amazon told the Times that it did not share information with third parties, nor does it build a profile on customers.
A spokesman said: “All data was encrypted and kept confidential. Customers are in control of their voice history and can review or delete recordings.”
Okay, but Amazon stores all Alexa queries indefinitely unless you choose to delete them, and it has been getting into the US healthcare market
in a significant way. The company has even patented
a method of detecting if you’re sick from the sound of your voice — a great way of then selling you a cure.
But why does Amazon need that technology if it just has people straight up telling them its symptoms?
I fear the NHS has sleepwalked into helping Amazon collect a treasure trove of British people’s health data that may not be used today, but could easily be useful in the future. And the fact the government didn’t address potential public concern upfront as part of the announcement indicates that privacy wasn’t a high enough priority in the project, or that they didn’t anticipate people would be concerned at all. Either possibility is a real worry.