back to article Oh good. This'll go well. Amazon's Alexa will offer NHS advice

Patients in the UK will be able to use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to search for information from the National Health Service's website. The nation's Health Secretary - and app-maker extraordinaire - Matt Hancock brushed aside concerns about privacy or handing a commercial company potentially sensitive medical information …

  1. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Quote

    Amazon is not sharing any of this information with third parties, nor is it selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, nor is it building a health profile on customers.

    All information is treated with high confidentiality and Amazon use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it.

    And if you believe all that, I've got a bridge you can buy.......

    How long before the data is left on an 'unsecured server' how long until 'opps we sold that data with a bunch of other data to a 3rd party', how long until "your data is safely stored on a server in the USA where it can be sold by Amazon US. a totally seperate company to Amazon UK'

    Gawd I'm cynical.... or am I?

    1. sad_loser

      mixed feelings

      [IAAD]

      At one level I am worried about patients telling Alexa confidential information "hey alexa, my friend has a drippy dick, what should he do?"

      [Can play some good jokes on friends by asking their Alexa some interesting health questions.]

      On the other hand, people are going to be using Alexa for health anyway, and with so much disinformation / misinformation e.g. vaxxers then there is a public health justification in ensuring if accurate and well-curated information is available, and the cost is zero (because this information is already developed) why would you NOT do this?

      1. BebopWeBop Silver badge

        Re: mixed feelings

        Under what definition of 'good' would that be?

    2. ThatOne Silver badge
      Devil

      > Amazon is not sharing any of this information

      Of course not. A differently named subsidiary will.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Amazon is in it NOT Only for the data

      it will gather based upon your illness and location (and voice patten matching)

      BUT

      I am sure that you will soon start getting adverts/emails recommending cures and other health related stuff based upon your Alexa queries.

      Don't panic people. This is just another step in their quest to rule the world. Remember they are fighting with Google (arch Slurpers) and Facebook (The dragon with the crypto currency) for world domination.

      Don't use Google or Facebook and amazon is only used as a last resort. How long can I withstand the seige eh? (/s /s /s)

      1. RegGuy1 Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Amazon is in it NOT Only for the data

        Dad: Alexa. I'm looking to buy my daughter something for her birthday.

        Alexa: Well she tells me her boyfriend has a drippy dick. Hows about some Viagra and a box of condoms?

        Dad: What! She's only 14.

    4. J. R. Hartley

      Alexa, add Amazon Prime Healthcare to my shopping list.

  2. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge
    FAIL

    Advice

    Idiot: "Aluxa, my hand always hurts."

    Aluxa: "Amazon sells supplies to permanently remove your pain. Ordering now."

    1. BebopWeBop Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Advice

      Stop of you'll go blind as advice?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Advice

      A hacksaw?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    handed to big technology companies with nothing in return

    only AFTER brexit, and AFTER we've signed that bestest motherfucker deal with Mr Trump (Take that, EU!) And please, don't imply we get "nothing in return". We get a DEAL.

    And I wouldn't put it past Mr Hancock to time this nhs/amazon deal to send a signal to our bestest US friends that yeah, UK's ready for a quickie.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: handed to big technology companies with nothing in return

      We get a DEAL.

      A worse deal than we have at present, but who gives a shit about that?

  4. IT Hack
    Pint

    Data Rape

    I'd rather they trial it with BUPA first...

    Beer coz el Reg doesn't sell anything stronger.

  5. HmYiss

    "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

    Clearly false.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

      Well, it's technically correct, after all, the word "shared" implies that you get something of equal value back, and that's definitely not the case.

      "Patient data is being donated to Amazon as part of this agreement." might be better, or maybe even "Patient data is now the sole property of Amazon as part of this agreement."

      Whatever they're doing with it though, it's not sharing, because we get nothing of value back.

      1. DJO Silver badge

        Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

        Whatever they're doing with it though, it's not sharing, because we get nothing of value back

        4% of Amazon global turnover the first time they fuck up and give/sell/abuse personal data, which will probably be 0.000001 seconds after they launch it.

        This is a GDPR minefield, TBH I'm a bit surprised Amazon are risking it because there is no way this will end well for them.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

          Or maybe they think the numpties that voted for Brexit will get their way and GDPR won't apply.

          1. DJO Silver badge

            Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

            It's already written into UK law. As much as some Tories would love to roll back citizens rights (to what we had in about AD 850) I doubt if they would be able to get away with it.

            1. Muscleguy Silver badge

              Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

              It may have passed your notice but Westminster is absolutely sovereign to the extent that one parliament cannot bind subsequent parliaments. We saw this with the much heralded attempt to enshrine the existence of the Scottish Parliament in law. That was admitted to be a fiction in the Brexit trial to ensure parliament got a vote to invoke Article 50.

              Also they have passed a portmanteau bill giving ministers the right to change legislation by fiat after Brexit. Which means a stroke of the ministerial pen will be all that will be required to remove such pesky legislation.

              Those who voted for Brexit 'to take control' did not pause to consider who might take that control and what they might do with it, like removing fundamental rights which interfere with the right of corporations to profit from and exploit you or that Nissan might decide it is untenable with continent wide supply lines to remain in Sunderland after Brexit so all their jobs might disappear.

    2. Fonant

      Re: "No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement."

      I suspect they meant "No patient data held by us is being shared with Amazon. Yet".

      The information that can be obtained from analysing the person's questions to Alexa, plus everything else Amazon knows, is utterly shared with Amazon.

  6. goodjudge

    Solution looking for a problem?

    Compare:

    "The press release promised: "The technology will help patients, especially the elderly, blind and those who cannot access the internet through traditional means, to get professional, NHS-verified health information in seconds, through simple voice commands."

    and

    "The service provided by Amazon will not provide any form of diagnosis or advice. It will help people become better informed about conditions and mange their healthcare more effectively"

    What the rubber duck does it actually do then? If I'm feeling ill, I want a diagnosis, not a list of 20 things that I might have followed by "this is not authorised medical advice, please contact your GP"? About the best I can think of is it can issue regular reminders that it's time to take your tablets. Though I can think of quite a few cheaper and less intrusive ways of people managing to do that...

    1. phuzz Silver badge
      IT Angle

      Re: Solution looking for a problem?

      Reading between the lines, it's just querying the NHS Direct website, but using voice commands and text-to-speech.

      So basically what any voice-controlled speaker thingy could do already.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Solution looking for a problem?

        Ahh yes but it does add value. It stores and analyses what you looked for.... to help improve its performance, not to try and track you or sell you stuff in some creepy way, please stop thinking that.

        1. Psmo Silver badge

          Re: Solution looking for a problem?

          Can people start using <sarc /> tags?

          My sarcasm meter is still recovering from the headline, and I'm really struggling with this chain.

          Thanks in advance.

      2. tfewster Silver badge
        Facepalm

        Re: Solution looking for a problem?

        I'd really like to hear from someone like Shadow Systems for their views on how effectively blind people can use NHS Direct (phone or Web) at present, and if Alexa "AI" would add anything to that.

        "There is no cost to this agreement to the taxpayer". Yeah, because we're the product being sold (out), not the customer. FOAD, Alexa

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Solution looking for a problem?

          For reading? I've heard friends say neighbours they know use Alexa for "read me X" even for general enquiries. This is for recently acquired blindness. Those using digital brail type readers may differ in use case. :)

          So that is great.

          The other side of the app systems (tracking), less so.

      3. NATTtrash Silver badge
        WTF?

        Re: Solution looking for a problem?

        This feels so very, extremely, maliciously wrong at so many levels...

        But perhaps less clear, but much, much more worrying...

        Something is wrong. Something is struggling. Something needs some real TLC.

        It isn't a secret that the NHS is struggling (would love to have discussion on why, but let's keep it focussed) that work loads should go down, capacity should be available, and people should be helped, not in hall ways, and within reasonable time frames (like the location where I work nowadays OUK). Indeed, a pressing situation which needs an urgent, thorough solution...

        We can solve it easily, the technology is there. The only thing we have to do is apply it. We don't have to do it on the spot, there, we can do it elsewhere. At the persons location. All other arguments about this topic are just simple scaremongering. The solution is there. We got the technical solution, let's just do it and all will be good.

        Being a HCP myself, I ask myself though whether Alexa (Amazon) also has an app for an "end-of-life" conversation...

        1. Muscleguy Silver badge

          Re: Solution looking for a problem?

          1. 'The NHS' is not a monolithic UK wide thing. There are separate NHS's in the devolved nations.

          2. Scotland's NHS is doing much better than England's or Wales's

    2. Flywheel Silver badge

      Re: Solution looking for a problem?

      I want a diagnosis, not a list of 20 things that I might have followed by "this is not authorised medical advice, please contact your GP"?

      And you shall have a diagnosis, probably followed by a list of Chinese-sourced remedies generic medical products that Amazon sells that are relevant to your symptoms.

      1. doublelayer Silver badge

        Re: Solution looking for a problem?

        I think the original point of the thread is a good one. What kind of information is it actually getting? If it's just querying a page online, how much information can that really provide? Is it going to do a simple search and start reading one of the health topics like this one with little or no reason for choosing it? The content is more nicely phrased on the NHS site, but we could get the same benefit from implementing feature number six on this XKCD.

  7. MrKrotos

    No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement

    Yeah pull the other one!

  8. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    I can see it now...

    People who searched for this also searched for "funeral directors and "florists"

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    You previously showed interest in heart attacks, other customers also looked at breast cancer, indigestion tablets, and penis enlargementas.

    Based on your search history, would you be interested in:-

    Health Insurance.

    Funerals.

    Medical negligence lawyers.

    1. Commswonk Silver badge

      Ian Emery wrote: Medical negligence lawyers.

      Ha Ha! At least with the NHS you can sue for medical negligence.

      Good luck trying to sue Amazon.

      1. goodjudge

        More like, good luck trying to get medical insurance after whichever company you contact demands that, before it can even consider you for a quote, Amazon must hand over its complete history of everything you've ever asked Alexa about.

        1. MJI Silver badge

          What is medical insurance?

          Do we need it?

  10. The Original Steve

    I actually didn't think this was really a big issue at all, if all it's doing is allowing Alex to relay stuff from the public NHS website. No more worrying than your ISP/browser/Gov from knowing/recording you've accessed the NHS website.

    But the point about a teenage girl using it about a sexual related query and that query being stored on the account is a good example of the worry. Likewise Amazon collating the queries and using that to build profiles etc. Very troubling indeed.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Although really we should be encouraging families to talk together and be open and supportive with each other rather than treat sex as a dirty subject which can only be discussed in secret.

  11. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Mushroom

    How Big?

    The brown paper envelopes, that is.

    I can't imagine any rational person thinking this is a good idea - but then if the envelope is big enough many people become quite irrational.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge
      Windows

      Re: How Big?

      He most likely has a cushy manager job waiting for him. He wouldn't be the first one.

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Re: How Big?

        "He most likely has a cushy manager job waiting for him. He wouldn't be the first one."

        That was exactly my thinking.

        How long before he joins other ex government staffers with links to the NHS who have 'Migrated to the companies they have been working with?

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: How Big?

        More likely a pet project IMO. Looks good on a CV, logic be damned.

  12. Zog_but_not_the_first
    Facepalm

    See icon

    See title

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All I'll say is it's a good job insurance companies are all really honest and would never buy this information off Amazon.

    Sarcasm aside, this data is probably going to end up in the US and once it does what rights do the UK government or the public have to it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      It'll only end up there if you start asking Alexa health related questions. Are we so inept as individuals that we cannot be held accountable for our own decisions?

      If I choose to buy an Amazon spy device and then choose to ask it direct questions relating to my health - surely that's my own ****ing fault?

      I noted this is NHS Digital, so guessing NHS Wales, NHS Scotland etc aren't included somehow?

  14. Spacedinvader
    Trollface

    They've had a data breach already?

    "Customer trust is of the upmost importance, and Amazon take privacy seriously."

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    what's in this deal for Amazon?

    I'm sure their prime interest is only money. It might not be MONEY, and expanding into this hugely lucrative field of healthcare (or health "care") must be the next holy grail for Amazon. So, in the short run, the first shot will be free and they'll probably double backwards to demonstrate how much they care and respect personal data, etc. And when the government looks for new "venues" to save money on public spending, there's this our trusted, proven, reliable business partner, Amazon, perfectly capable of delivering... And why stop there, you still have education and police to be replaced with alexa. Savings ahoy.

    1. Fonant

      Re: what's in this deal for Amazon?

      Amazon Pharmacy - coming soon!

      1. Teiwaz Silver badge

        Re: what's in this deal for Amazon?

        Amazon Brain Surgery?

        New Brain from Currys

    2. MJI Silver badge

      Re: what's in this deal for Amazon?

      Selling more Alexas and trying to be top in voice assistants.

  16. sal II

    Why all the criticism?

    Alexa linked privacy concerns aside (as they are there regardless where Alexa have access to the NHS website or not), what seems to be the problem? It's not like they are linking your NHS number/NI to your Amazon account.

    Today: People ask Alexa health related questions and receive answers based on random sources on D'internet

    In the future: People ask Alexa health related questions and receive answers based on the NHS knowledge database.

    Half of the GPs do exactly that - search the NHS website based on the symptoms you give them.

    1. Vometia Munro

      Re: Why all the criticism?

      Yes and no. I have actually witnessed a GP use Google to figure out what she should do next. But that's linked to her account and would require some absolutely unheard of data breach to also be linked to me as a patient; whereas asking Alexa outright or just through some random eavesdropping would be linked to me personally. Okay, in practice they may not be very different, but I'd rather not be quite so resigned to the craptasticness of everything as to just invite trouble. Well, I mean not unless I explicitly choose to do so.

      1. dr john

        Re: Why all the criticism?

        On Holby City*, I saw an actor looking at one of my web sites to get the (correct) answer to a medical problem she didn't understand !!! I had got the correct diagnosis before she did that.

        Unfortunately they used a screen shot with my site's name removed...

        I was tempted to ask for a writer's credit and a small fee ;)

        Oh, I'm not a medical doctor

        * A medical drama on uk tv for overseas readers

  17. LucreLout Silver badge

    Anyone actually got an Alexa?

    If so, can you answer a few questions for me?

    - Can anyone ask about my order history?

    - Can anyone ask about my kindle library?

    - Can anyone ask about my Prime movie history?

    Just assume the reason I'm asking is that I'm a dibbling sex pest who is hiding his secret life from his wife. I'm not, but it's what you'll all assume :)

  18. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "Privacy Shield (under which EU data can be sent to the US for storage and processing) is falling apart"

    Shield? It was only ever a fig-leaf.

    1. Teiwaz Silver badge

      Shield? It was only ever a fig-leaf.

      It was a thin tissue of lies.

  19. Dan 55 Silver badge

    In practical terms Booth asked what would happen to a teenage girl's enquiries about contraception and whether her father, and Amazon account holder, would get to listen to them.

    So what was the answer? "Oh shit, we didn't think of that, it didn't get put into the requirements, and it'd be too difficult to retrofit recordings never appearing in the history list just for little old us."

  20. Mike Brown

    As long as amazon are simply regurgitating the contents of the NHS website, I don't have an issue with this. I don't use alexa so thats my opt out. If they are using the data they glean, then I'm a little more concerned.

  21. JohnMurray

    https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/ournhs/the-nhs-is-embracing-big-data-but-whos-really-benefiting/

  22. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Devil

    Alexa, tell me how to do a heart transplant.

    Coming to an NHS operating room near you?

  23. N2 Silver badge
    Trollface

    Alexa - I'm not feeling very well?

    Shut up and take your pills, while I share this information with carefully selected...

    Jeeze, why anyone would actually talk to that thing is beyond me.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No one has mentioned the possibilities that "big data" provides to the likes of Amazon....

    **START HERE:

    All Alexa transactions are linked to an Amazon account.

    That Amazon account has an account holder name and address.

    Everything ordered through that Amazon account is linked to the account holder name and address.

    Some of these orders will be delivered to third parties with other names and at other addresses.

    Everything mentioned near an Alexa device is recorded and is linked to the account holder name and address.

    *

    Now start to consider OTHER account holders, perhaps with nearby addresses, perhaps with the same or similar surnames.

    Start to consider the third party names and addresses mentioned for deliveries. Perhaps these third parties ALSO HAVE AMAZON accounts.

    Now Amazon goes back to **START HERE.....

    *

    And before you know it, 50% of the population is in a huge LINKED database OWNED BY AMAZON.

    *

    How can anyone, never mind a government minister, NOT PUT THIS TOGETHER AS A HUGE PRIVACY THREAT?

    1. Jedit
      FAIL

      "How can anyone, never mind a government minister"

      Because it's App Mancock, Idiot Extraordinaire. And he doesn't care what happens to any of the data as long as 1) the app appears to do the job - actual success not important - and 2) he gets paid.

  25. IGotOut Silver badge

    Ok am I missing the scandal here?

    So you ask Alexia a question it goes to effectively a publically accessible website and gives an answer.

    How is that worse than looking it up on Google, going to the website, have Google and God knows who else tracking you on that website and following where you go next.

    Yes Noscript and all that, bit here we are talking about the other 99.99% of the population.

    To me it seems more private toJoe Public than using a web search or mobile app.

    1. Old-dog

      Re: Ok am I missing the scandal here?

      Google is a big problem but Amazon Alexa is like Google plus your address plus your purchase history plus your recorded conversations plus the recorded conversations of your friends/visitors plus...

  26. CommanderGalaxian
    Terminator

    So uber#Brexit fanatics Big Brother Watch are complaining - spare me their crocodile tears.

    LOL. Big Brother Watch aren't happy because Uncle Sam is about to riffle through their privates and make them pay for the privilege. Fucking idiots claimed #EUBad. Careful what you vote for.

    1. Dan 55 Silver badge

      Re: So uber#Brexit fanatics Big Brother Watch are complaining - spare me their crocodile tears.

      Don't know why Big Brother Watch would be unhappy with this, they all start at 9am pledging allegiance to the flag down at 55 Tufton Street, don't they?

  27. sanmigueelbeer Silver badge
    Joke

    Someone gave us an Alexa for Christmas and it is still remains unopened.

    I wonder if I can get a refund. Maybe get a nug (spell backwards) so I can shoot my foot before it goes into my mouth.

  28. quartzz

    it's good. because (correct if wrong, I don't actually own one) Alexa's monthly cost is free, and they'll only plan to charge you an extra £40 (or £50? or ...) per year for medical advice? or is that to leave reviews on amazon.com ..

  29. John70

    Move over Dr. Google...

    ...there's a new doctor in the house.

  30. Claverhouse Silver badge

    Could be helpful if knowledgeable Romanian or Indian Alexa techs are listening in and can interrupt your doctor with sage advice,

    "Ohhh yes, I have seen this sort of thing before, many times, many many times; my poor old grandmother suffered exactly the same way --- ignore all that rubbish, you need to mix hydrochloric acid, butter, bees' wings, about 100 grams, newt spittle and cordite, and apply it directly for 10 days..."

  31. katrinab Silver badge
    Alert

    Alexa, send me an Ambulance

    Your ambulance will arrive tomorrow shipped by Prime Delivery

    https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00VLV48V4/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_i_aOUjDbJ7BJ5XZ

  32. dr john

    Googling on a medical problem is better, you get more choices on what to read, can study answers carefully, have several tabs or browser windows open at once for comparing things and re-read bits without repeating the questions, and some of the data sources used will cover bits in more details than others.

    Why would any sane person use a search device that only gives the first answer it finds when searching?

    I just don't see the attraction of these ask a question devices.

    1. MJI Silver badge

      Possibly because the first answer is from the NHS.

  33. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    Won't work for me

    Two reasons:

    1) NHS Wales is NOT selling/giving any data to Amazon

    2) Alexa/Siri etc will enter my home only when I ask "Alexa, what's the nearest undertaker?" <death rattle FX>....

  34. scrubber

    Amazon bought Pillpack, an online pharmacist

    Alexa will diagnose you, recommend some pills, Pillpack will rubber stamp the prescription and send it to you.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  35. ManMountain1

    Alexa is just a glorified search engine. Most of us probably google our symptoms trying to self-diagnose anyway. Not always a good idea but we do. Don't even see why this is news, to be honest. It's just another portal for the health paranoid and whether you type something in, or ask Alexa verbally, they will have your data. If you don't like that, don't ask.

  36. s. pam
    Mushroom

    Amazon and Google can fuck right off

    There's no way in hell we will allow them access to our private medical data. We don't even do medical searches on the web unless we're in private/anonymous mode via Duck Duck Go.

    Alexa can sit and spin on that.

  37. Old Lady
    Pirate

    Data

    I find it very touching that so many seem to think that our personal data is safe with with the NHS. Have you ever wondered where research laboratories get their information from when you receive a letter asking you to take part in research for your particular ailment. I don’t mind being ask to take part but I would like to be asked first for permission to pass on my details. I wouldn’t worry too much about Amazon keeping data about the odd health question, I worry more of how many people have access to my personal data held by the NHS.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Data

      It depends on how it's done. If a research group asks NHS for a pool of people that fit the study parameters and NHS sends out an enquiry written by the study group, that's not a big issue. If they just hand your information to the study group, that's a problem. Of course, you should be allowed to opt out if you like, but it could be a good way to free services and maybe some dosh.

  38. steviebuk Silver badge

    You question..

    ...Matt Hancock about this on Twitter and he just ignores it. I bet he wouldn't if it was someone big on Twitter.

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