DHSC minister says that agreement ensures that UK citizens will receive relevant information
The government has claimed that significant redactions were made before publishing the agreement between the NHS and Amazon Alexa on account of the tech firm’s acceptance of “non-standard terms” that could, if made public, harm its business in other areas.
The deal allows Amazon to plug into NHS application programming interfaces (APIs) to access website content related to health advice on a range of issues. The intention is to ensure that, when they pose healthcare queries, Alexa users in the UK are pointed towards official NHS-endorsed guidance, rather than information from other sources – particularly those outside the UK.
No money is changing hands, and the agreement is not exclusive – with more than 2,000 other organisations using NHS health-advice information in a similar way, according to the government.
But the Department of Health and Social Care has faced criticism over a perceived lack of transparency in its engagement with Amazon; the agreement was first signed in December 2018, but the contract was not published online until 10 months later.
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Even then, it was redacted in many places – particularly in the terms and conditions section.
Charity Privacy International last month raised concerns about what it saw as a lack of openness.
“The lines describing the consequences for Amazon if they were to fail to meet the terms of the agreement have been redacted,” it said. “This accordingly raises questions as to whether a company recently surrounded by ‘privacy concerns about its use of manual human reviews of Alexa AI voice assistant recordings’ could have been granted any potentially ‘privileged’ status under the agreement. And, if not, why would this have to be hidden from the public?”
In answer to a written parliamentary question, Baroness Blackwood, a junior minister at the DHSC, said that such information has been hidden because Amazon has assented to certain non-standard contractual conditions that, if made public, could enable its customers in other areas to raise complaints.
“The release of the redacted clauses would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of Amazon on the basis that it would make public the non-standard terms that Amazon has been willing to enter into.”
“In this case, we consider that the release of the redacted clauses would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of Amazon on the basis that it would make public the non-standard terms that Amazon has been willing to enter into in respect of this agreement,” she said. “Disclosure of the redacted clauses has potential to prejudice existing agreements between Amazon and other parties, which could result in other parties challenging Amazon over the terms and conditions of their agreements.”
In answer to another of a series of questions on the topic from Labour peer Lord Hunt, Baroness Blackwood reiterated that “no patient data is being shared with Amazon as part of this agreement”.
“The collaboration with Amazon simply connects people to information that is already freely available through the National Health Service website,” she said. “Use of Amazon Alexa is an alternative mechanism for accessing that information. Patients already use Alexa and other devices to search for information on a range of health issues. This agreement ensures that the information they receive from Alexa is medically verified by the NHS instead of from a range of other sources, such as non-United Kingdom websites.”