Amazon’s NHS contract redacted over tech firm’s acceptance of ‘non-standard terms’

Written by Sam Trendall on 13 January 2020 in News

DHSC minister says that agreement ensures that UK citizens will receive relevant information

Credit: Pxhere

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.

Related content

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."
Baroness Blackwood

“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.”


About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

Share this page




Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.

Related Articles

Why have governments struggled to get it right on digital identity?
25 February 2020

With many government-developed services seeing poor uptake, the answer may lie in allowing citizens to ‘bring your own identity’, according to Arthur Mickoleit of Gartner

Why government is ‘failing’ on AI openness
17 February 2020

The body dedicated to upholding ethical standards across the public sector has published a major report examining how to ensure those standards are not threatened by AI and automation

Interview: GDS head Alison Pritchard on ministerial change, the spending review and the benefits of comedy
20 March 2020

The Government Digital Service was created to be a radical agent of reform. Director general Alison Pritchard tells PublicTechnology that, while it now prefers to work more...