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Privacy group attacks NHS-Amazon deal

09/12/19

Parliamentary Correspondent

The health secretary is under fire for a deal claimed to hand over NHS data for free to Amazon to help it develop new commercial products.

Doctor pressing icons on screen

Campaign group Privacy International said that a freedom of information request has revealed that the contract, announced in July, goes far further than Matt Hancock suggested.

The deal was hailed at the time by Hancock as a way to help give patients better medical advice using technology such as Alexa, which uses voice activation and Amazon’s algorithm to answer key questions. But Privacy International has now said a copy of the contract that it has obtained suggests the American tech giant will gain access to more than just NHS website data.

It said the contract allows the company to use this data in a number of ways – not just providing advice to UK patients. It states Amazon can tap into all “healthcare information, including without limitation symptoms, causes, and definitions, and all related copyrightable content, data, information and other materials” held by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

It is also said to block the DHSC from issuing any publicity without Amazon’s consent, saying the department “may not issue a press release or any other publicity in connection with or related to this agreement or Amazon’s use of (DHSC) content without the prior written consent of Amazon”.

Redactions

Large parts of the contract have been redacted on the grounds of commercial sensitivity because, according to the DHSC, the company could be damaged if the full details became known.

In response to Privacy International’s claims, a spokesperson for NHS Improvement said: “No patient data is being provided to this company by the NHS, which takes data privacy extremely seriously and has put appropriate safeguards in place to ensure information is used correctly.”

But the development has been taken up as ammunition by the political opposition. Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, accused the Government of being “highly irresponsible” and “in the pocket of big corporate interests”.

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, said: “It beggars belief that the Conservatives have negotiated the selling off of NHS data for nothing.” 

Privacy International itself said the contract “may sound harmless at first”, but warned: “We should not be naive about the intentions of big companies that are preying over the NHS.

“With their business model relying increasingly on the availability of consumers’ data, dominant online platforms can engage in various forms of data exploitation or even impose unfair terms for consumers.”

Image from GOV.UK, Open Government Licence v3.0

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