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UK to use Amazon Alexa to dispense medical advice

Published:Thursday | July 11, 2019 | 12:15 AM
An Amazon Alexa device.
An Amazon Alexa device.

Britain’s healthcare service is teaming up with Amazon’s digital voice assistant Alexa to help answer medical queries with advice from the service’s official website. Critics, however, warn about risks to data privacy.

The United Kingdom government said Wednesday that the system will help people get quick and accurate health information. It will be especially useful for senior citizens, blind people and others who find it hard to access the Internet while also easing pressure on doctors.

Using Amazon’s algorithms, Alexa can answer voice questions from users about common maladies such as the flu or chickenpox with information verified by the National Health Service.

It’s part of the UK government’s long-term modernisation plan to provide more digital health services.

“We want to empower every patient to take better control of their healthcare,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Privacy campaigners said that while making it easier for people to access reliable medical advice was a step in the right direction, they were concerned about the partnership and its implications.

“Amazon is a company with a worrying track record when it comes to the way they handle their users’ data,” said Eva Blum-Dumontet, a researcher at Privacy International. “Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us and a lot can be inferred from the questions we ask and the searches we make when we have health concerns.”

Privacy concerns surrounding voice assistants have come into focus amid reports that services like Alexa are listening and recording conversations in homes. A lawsuit filed last month in United States federal court alleged that Amazon is violating laws in eight states by recording children without consent through Alexa devices.

Amazon on Wednesday sought to reassure users that their information will be kept confidential, and not shared with third parties, used to sell products or to build a health profile.

“Customer trust is of the utmost importance, and Amazon takes privacy seriously,” the company said in a statement, adding that users control their voice history and can delete recordings.

– AP