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Britain’s state health service announces partnership with Amazon Alexa, raising privacy concerns

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On Wednesday, the British government announced that residents of the United Kingdom can now browse the National Health Service website using Amazon’s discussed device, raising concerns over data protection and privacy.

Alexa will be able to answer user questions related to health such as how to treat a migraine or other ailments by sourcing information from the NHS website’s databases.

Gemma Cook, a spokesperson for Amazon, explains: “This information comes from the NHS choices website so is just an alternative way to get information that is already available online via Alexa.”

According to a spokesperson from health service, Robbie Gordon, the agreement will not be exclusive to Amazon: the government plans to work with other providers offering similar voice recognition technologies.

Currently, the UK’s universal health care system is under pressure due to a shortage of funding and uncertainty. According to a study conducted by the recruiting company Manpower, European workers leaving the UK have contributed to a shortage of 210,000 employees throughout the national health and social care system. Alexa’s agreement comes as a proposed solution to alleviate the stress on the NHS and doctors by rerouting some of the inquiries to its online platform.

However, privacy advocates are criticizing the deal, saying that the government is approving a potentially privacy-breaching practice just a few weeks after a report revealed that Amazon hires people to listen to Alexa users’ conversations, allegedly to improve the service.

As Eva Blum-Dumontet of Privacy International pointed out, Amazon is “a company with a worrying track record when it comes to the way they handle their users’ data.”

“Our medical information is often the most sensitive data there is about us,” she continued. “Amazon will have to clarify what steps they plan on taking to protect their users’ privacy.”

There is hope that the British authorities will keep a close watch on Amazon’s data handling practices.

This week, UK regulators proposed fines for British Airways and Marriott after the companies failed to safeguard the data, and the European high court is hearing a case that could impede data transfers from Europe to the US and the rest of the world.

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