The Amazon Alexa voice assistant is now offering UK users expert NHS health advice, with the aim of improving the quality of public health information and reducing demand on the overstretched health service.
The smart home device will now automatically search and provide information from the official NHS website when UK users ask for health-related advice. Previously, it provided health information based on a variety of popular responses.
As well as weeding out disinformation from unverified sources, it is thought the technology will be particularly useful for elderly or visually impaired people who may struggle to use a computer to look up their symptoms.
Obsorne Clarke co-head of digital health Marcus Vass said: “In the UK, the NHS website is already a popular source of information – and enabling the search function of Alexa (and hopefully in due course other voice assisted functions) is a natural reflection of that reality.”
However, the announcement has also drawn criticism. Civil liberties action group Big Brother Watch has expressed concerns about the way patient data will be protected, especially following privacy concerns about Amazon’s covert recordings of Alexa users.
Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo said: “Amazon’s Alexa records what people say, stores recordings in data centres we know nothing about, and exploits our data for profit. This scheme will likely result in people being profiled and targeted by data brokers based on their deeply personal health concerns.
“It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”
Amazon has said that that it will not share customer’s health information with third parties or build a personal profile on customers to enable targeted advertising. It also noted that customers could review and delete their voice recordings.
A spokesperson for Amazon said: “Customers are in control of their voice history. They can review and delete voice recordings in the Alexa App or by visiting amazon.co.uk/privacy. They can also opt-in to ‘delete what I just said’ or ‘delete what I said today’.”
The company maintains that all of its data is encrypted and confidential and all information is treated with high confidentiality, with multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of its control environment to protect it.
Vectra EMEA director Matt Walmsley said: “Users need to be informed and comfortable with how Amazon and NHS Choices are processing and using their data.”
The NHS is in conversation with other smart home technology providers such as Microsoft about setting up similar arrangements.