Government Computing

GC Staff Writer

A deal signed by the UK government and Amazon to allow the latter to use NHS data for free on its Alexa virtual assistant platform has come under the scrutiny of privacy group Privacy International and organisations.

The privacy group said that following a freedom of information request, the Department of Health and Social Care has released its contract with Amazon. According to the group, the content of the contract is to a large extent redacted and that it would contest the department’s decision for the public interest.

The contract started from 14 December 2018 and will be in effect till 15 October 2024. It allows Amazon to use content from the NHS website to give reliable and informative answers to basic health questions asked to Alexa.

In July 2019, the UK government announced a partnership with Amazon so that people can have their medical questions answered by the company’s virtual assistant. The move was expected to take some burden off the NHS as people would look up to Alexa rather than calling the former’s hotline.

According to Privacy International, the lines detailing the consequences for Amazon if it failed to comply with the terms of the contract have been redacted. This, the privacy group says will give way for questions as to whether the company was given any privileged status by the government.

The group claimed that a sub-section titled Licensor API in the contract, which is an important aspect, also has a full paragraph redacted.

Privacy International stated: “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 naïve about the intentions of big companies that are preying over the NHS. This particular partnership 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.”

The privacy group warned that the NHS should not turn into another advertising asset for big tech firms. Furthermore, it wants traditional helplines and sources of information to continue being accessible to those who cannot afford or decide not to have an Alexa device.

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