Editorial

‘Alexa, what is hidden behind your contract with the NHS?’

Privacy campaign group Privacy International says we should all be concerned with the government’s doings with our medical data

Posted 9 December 2019 by

Privacy International says that HMG is not being as straight with us as maybe it should be about what exactly Amazon’s doing with our NHS medical data.

The group made the claim via a post on its site on Friday, noting that after a Freedom of Information action it had finally received details of the contract between the Department of Health and Social Care and Amazon regarding the use of NHS content by Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant.

The problem: a lot of the details are redacted (blacked out): “Various sections of the contract are redacted. In the ‘Term; Termination and Survival’ (first section) we find the first redacted information, which include the length of the notice period requested to terminate the contract. But most of the redactions are in the Statement of Work #1. The sub-section ‘Additional Terms and Conditions’ has three entire paragraphs redacted.”

Why might that be a problem? Well, according to the group, which says it’s all about targeting “companies and governments that don’t respect your right to be free from their prying technologies, “The lines describing the consequences for Amazon if they were to fail to meet the terms of the agreement have been redacted.

“This accordingly raises questions as to whether a company recently surrounded by “privacy concerns about its use of manual human reviews of Alexa AI voice assistant recordings” could have been granted any potentially “privileged” status under the agreement. And, if not, why would this have to be hidden from the public?”

The post then supplies the Government’s specific answer to its concerns:

“We consider that the release of the redacted clauses would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of Amazon on the basis that it would make public the non-standard terms that Amazon has been willing to enter into in respect of this agreement.

We consider that this would harm Amazon’s negotiating position [emphasis added] when entering into agreements with other parties in the future, which in turn would be likely to prejudice their commercial interests. [emphasis added]”

In Privacy International’s understanding of that position (we haven’t published all of the response), that means Amazon’s commercial interest is superseding UK public interest. And if that wasn’t enough to be potentially concerned about, the group also says that we do not have a “full and precise overview of what exactly the NHS is granting Amazon” and that “Amazon is not making the NHS any promise, beyond guaranteeing it will give an attribution to the NHS when the NHS content is being quoted”.

Hence its conclusion that, “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.”

Plus, says the group, “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.”

The contract also bars, it turns out, the Department making any official statement about the deal without Amazon’s explicit permission.

For Privacy International, “The NHS must not become another advertising asset for big tech companies, nor should we take the risk to see cuts to traditional helplines and sources of information. It needs to remain accessible to those who cannot afford or choose not to have an Alexa device.

“To guarantee that those partnerships do not happen at the expense of patients, it is time for the Department of Health to become more transparent.

“The public interest should always prevail over the commercial interest of Amazon and the Department of Health should not jump to conclusion as to what is and is not of interest to the public, as they did in their letter to us.”