Amazon is getting free access to NHS medical data

Amazon and NHS logos

As fear mounts in the UK at the prospect of the NHS being sold in part or in whole to the US, the government has decided to give Amazon access to National Health Service data for free.

The arrangement means that Amazon will be able to access "healthcare information, including ... symptoms, causes, and definitions". The tech giant will be able to use the data in conjunction with Alexa to enable users to get medical help and advice via the digital assistant.


Although individual patient data will not be shared, the deal is still highly controversial. Back in July, the UK government announced that it was going in to partnership with Amazon, and this immediately raised concerns. Campaigners from Privacy International used a freedom of information request to obtain a copy of a contract between Amazon and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHCS) from December last year.

The document reveals that Amazon will be able to access and make use of all of the DHCS's "healthcare information, including without limitation symptoms, causes, and definitions, and all related copyrightable content, data, information and other materials". No money is changing hands as part of the deal.

Amazon will be able to use the data to create "new products, applications, cloud-based services and/or distributed software", and is also permitted to share the information with third parties. While an NHS spokesperson says, "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", Privacy International is still concerned.

Writing about the documents it was able to obtain, Privacy International says:

The agreement between the Department of Health and Amazon seems to clearly allow the latter to use the information provided on the NHS website for a handful of purposes, including advertising or marketing. As Amazon is already making or planning to make moves into healthcare, we find this alarming.

This is why it was particularly concerning this summer to watch the Health secretary proudly launching this partnership with Amazon and thus offering free advertisement to a company with a worrying track record on privacy -- as well as on paying taxes (it is also worth noting that the contract also revealed that the Department of Health is prohibited from publishing any press release or publicity about this partnership without the consent of Amazon).

The privacy and rights group calls for greater transparency. Large portions of the documents obtained were redacted, making it hard to determine the precise details of what has been agreed -- something which is worrying considering the value and nature of the data involved.

Amazon is trying to calm fears, saying: "General health-related content from the NHS website is now available to Alexa users via voice technology. The new option is particularly useful for those with accessibility needs who may not have been able to easily access content via a mobile device or computer in the past".

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