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Last Updated : Jul 18, 2019 07:42 PM IST | Source:

Alexa's new capability may offer you medical advice but could lead to a privacy headache

Amazon's Alexa can now offer personalised advice to medical queries in the UK. But experts are unclear on how the data will be used.

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Amazon recently announced a collaboration with Britain’s National Health Service that will enable its digital assistant Alexa to answer medical queries.

The move could potentially help users have faster, cheaper and more convenient access to healthcare but it also opens a privacy debate on how Amazon would use the medical data it obtains.

Alexa already has the capability to answer generic medical questions – such as “what are the symptoms of flu?” – but the tie-up with NHS gives it the nod to answer personal queries, such as offering tips to reduce one’s blood sugar.


This announcement comes after the NHS had put forward a plan to give a push to digital technologies in order to make healthcare more accessible. The NHS will pre-approve all medical advice that Alexa potentially can and will offer.

Experts, however, have warned that the new service leaves several questions on privacy unanswered. These include, as pointed out in a recent LA Times column, whether Amazon could use the data to push personalised health product recommendations on its e-commerce website. Potentially, Amazon could also work with third parties – for instance, insurers could use this data to price customers’ premium.

In the US, Amazon even has an e-pharmacy that it acquired last year, something that could benefit from the treasure trove of patient data that Alexa has access to.

Amazon’s regular handling of data generated by Alexa itself came under a cloud when it emerged that its employees had accepted listening to recordings of Alexa users in the past. The company explained that the data was made available to its human employees as part of an effort to improve Alexa’s interface and speech-recognition capabilities.

Speaking to LA Times, an Amazon spokeswoman said that Amazon treats “all information… with high confidentiality.”

She added that Amazon was not sharing any information with third parties, selling products or making product recommendations based on this health information, or building a health profile on customers but did not say whether it would not do so in future.

Amazon has been trying to enter the healthcare sector since 1999 when it invested in to enter the pharmacy retail space. But its initiative failed to take off, stifled by strict regulations around healthcare.

Amazon’s first foray into healthcare would come in handy should it decide to launch services in developing countries such as India.

India became the first country in Asia to get Alexa in 2017. The country’s healthcare system is poised to grow rapidly to reach $ 9 billion by 2020. But it is also plagued by a poor hospital network, few doctors and rising costs, making the introduction of the NHS-like Alexa solution a worthy addition.

But what could be potentially concerning is that unlike its western counterparts, such as the EU, India does not have strong privacy laws.

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First Published on Jul 18, 2019 07:42 pm
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