“Alexa, what are the symptoms of flu?”
The UK government said Wednesday that Britons will be able to get an answer to this and other simple medical queries from the National Health Service (NHS) using their Amazon smart speakers.
The state-run health system’s tie-up with the US-based technology giant drew praise from overworked doctors and professionals weary of bad medical advice proliferating online.
But privacy campaigners expressed alarm over the possibility of Amazon storing medical data and then using it to sell targeted ads.
“Technology like this is a great example of how people can access reliable, world-leading NHS advice from the comfort of their home, reducing the pressure on our hardworking GPs and pharmacists,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in a statement.
Amazon said it began updating its Echo smart speakers to search NHS websites for medical answers at the start of the week.
The UK health department said it expected half of all symptom checks and other medical queries to be made through voice-assisted technology by next year.
It added that the new and more reliable service would be especially helpful to the elderly and the blind.
Health professionals also welcomed the government’s embrace of shifting consumer habits and the growing dominance of voice services.
“However, it is vital that independent research is done to ensure that the advice given is safe,” Royal College of GPs chairwoman Helen Stokes-Lampard said.
“Otherwise it could prevent people seeking proper medical help and create even more pressure on our overstretched GP service.”
Some privacy campaigners have also expressed concern about entrusting the tech giant with sensitive enquiries.
“Encouraging the public to give their private health details to one of the most aggressive corporate data guzzlers is astonishingly misguided,” said Big Brother Watch privacy group director Silkie Carlo.
“It’s a data protection disaster waiting to happen.”
Big Brother Watch also claimed that Amazon stores users’ voice recordings in its data centres.
But Amazon said in a letter to US Senator Chris Coons last month that its services “allow customers to see, hear, and delete the audio that was streamed to the cloud”.
Coons has been investigating Amazon’s data practices since last year.
‘No patient data shared’
The Health department insists that Amazon will not be able to access Britons’ medical records.
“No patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement,” the health department said in a statement released to AFP.
“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.”
The health department added that Amazon was accessing the information for free and that similar services such as Google Assistant were also encouraged to sign up.
“This agreement with Amazon is not exclusive — we want to work with other technology providers on similar agreements,” the health department said.
It added that all third paries needed to win approval from the NHS before accessing its websites and linking them up to their voice-assistant devices.
The NHS website offers basic advice on thousands of medical conditions and is one of the most popular symptom checkers in the world.
The new service is being billed by the UK government as a world-first.