Brits can now ask Amazon’s Alexa for health advice. But will privacy concerns stop them?
The British government announced Wednesday that UK residents can now search the National Health Service (NHS) website using voice commands, raising questions about privacy and data protection.
When Alexa users ask how to treat a migraine headache, or for the symptoms of the chickenpox, the device will respond with answers sourced from the NHS website.
“This information comes from the NHS choices website so is just an alternative way to get information that is already available online via Alexa,” said Gemma Cook, a spokesperson for Amazon.
The agreement with Amazon is not exclusive, and the NHS plans to work with other technology providers on similar offerings, a spokesman for the health service, Robbie Gordon, told CNN Business.
UK officials said they hoped that partnering with services like Amazon will alleviate stress on the NHS and doctors by providing reliable information for common illnesses.
The country’s universal health care system has been under pressure due to funding shortages and uncertainty caused by Brexit.
EU workers leaving the United Kingdom have contributed to a combined shortage of 210,000 staff throughout the health and social care system, according to a study by recruiter Manpower.
Yet privacy advocates criticized the deal with Amazon, saying it amounts to the government giving its stamp of approval to the Alexa platform just weeks after Bloomberg reported that Amazon had hired people to transcribe Alexa conversations. Amazon told Bloomberg that only a small number of recordings are listened to in order to improve the service.
“Amazon is a company with a worrying track record when it comes to the way they handle their users’ data,” Eva Blum-Dumontet of Privacy International told CNN Business.
“Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us,” she added. “Amazon will have to clarify what steps they plan on taking to protect their users’ privacy.”
UK regulators have this week proposed heavy fines for Marriott and British Airways after the companies failed to safeguard user data.
And Europe’s top court is hearing a case that could wipe out legal mechanisms that allow companies to transfer personal data to the United States.
There is no financial element to the collaboration, Amazon said.