Critics says government contract gifts NHS data to Amazon

A deal signed in the summer between the UK government and Amazon has been criticised after it emerged NHS data is being provided to the tech giant free of charge.

Back in July, the contract to deploy Amazon’s Alexa voice-assisted technology to provide healthcare information to the public was billed as a way to reduce the pressure on the NHS – particularly GPs and pharmacists – by providing information about common illnesses.

At the time Amazon was expected to gain access only to basic healthcare information on symptoms, causes and medical definitions etc, in order to allow Alexa to offer verified advice.

Since then, freedom of information requests by consumer advocacy group Privacy International has revealed that the terms also give Amazon access to all the content on the NHS website, including “all related copyrightable content, data, information and other materials”, as well as full access to the NHS Application Programming Interface (API).

The contract (now available online) has been heavily redacted so the full extent of what the NHS is granting Amazon may go further still, but is effectively “offering free advertisement to a company with a worrying track record on privacy – as well as on paying taxes,” says the group.

Amazon is also free to create new money-making products and services that could be rolled out in the UK and internationally – using data generated at the UK taxpayer’s expense – with no financial benefit coming back to the NHS.

“As Amazon is already making or planning to make moves into healthcare, we find this alarming,” says Privacy International, and it “also raises questions when it comes to competition regulation of dominant players in the digital era.”

“With their business model relying increasingly on the availability of consumers’ data, dominant online platforms can engage in various forms of data exploitation or even impose unfair terms for consumers,” it adds.

The NHS insists no patient data is being shared with the US tech giant, and Amazon has said that its access to data is restricted to what is on the NHS.uk website.

“Alexa does not have access to any personal or private information from the NHS. General health-related content from the NHS website has been freely available to the public and is now available to Alexa users via voice technology.

The Amazon contract was agreed just before an Ernst and Young report suggested data contained in NHS patient records could be worth several billion pounds to commercial organisations.

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