Amazon has quietly struck a data-sharing deal with England’s National Health Service giving it free access to a range of health data from British consumers. While the trove of data Amazon captured may not be as rich as those gathered by, say, Google or Apple, it’s still a pretty sweet deal, especially given that few in the US seem to have even noticed.
According to the terms of the agreement, Amazon has been given access to all NHS healthcare information other than patient records. While the data gathering is being paid for by the taxpayer-funded entity, Amazon is accessing the information free of charge.
The data Amazon is accessing comes from a contract it signed with the NHS, which wanted to give patients sound health advice via the Alexa voice assistant. As it turns out, however, Amazon might be getting far more than it’s giving. As written, the agreement gives Amazon access not only to virtually all NHS healthcare and related copyrightable data, according to an analyst quoted in the Digital Journal.
The analyst, Nardev Ramanathan of Lux Research, notes that as things stand, it appears that Amazon could leverage the data to build any product or application, then turn and offer them outside of the U.K. Some British commentators are already slamming NHS for having agreed to these terms, which they see as a bad deal for the NHS.
This is an intriguing move on Amazon’s part, as it puts the company into competition with US data giants without having to engage in face-to-face combat. The deal also seems to sidestep the scrutiny US companies have faced when collecting US health data, at least for now.
As we’re written about previously, regulatory agencies and consumers are paying increasingly close attention to how health data is gathered, how it’s used and what protections are put in place to preserve patient privacy.
For example, late last year the HHS Office for Civil Rights announced that it was investigating whether Google’s data-sharing deal with the Ascension health system violated HIPAA requirements. The investigation arose out of Google’s “Project Nightingale” initiative, which focuses on analyzing individual health data in an effort to personalize medical treatment.
When a piece on the story appearing in the Wall Street Journal described the project, it generated a great deal of scrutiny, with some members of the media suggesting that Google and/or Ascension leaders had been sneaking around conducting secret experiments. Ascension leaders seemed frustrated that their project was getting so much negative scrutiny, with EVP of strategy and innovation Eduardo Conrado noting that administrators and clinical leaders were completely aware of what was afoot.
Meanwhile, taking an approach that effectively sneaks it into the back door, Amazon has gained access to a motherload of health data which also works to flesh out the healthcare capabilities of its massively popular Alexa-based services and products.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that Amazon (nor Google) has done anything wrong here. However, I’m not surprised the British public isn’t thrilled by the data-sharing loophole Amazon seems to have found here.
Honestly, I’m perversely amused – and I’ll admit it, impressed — by the way Amazon seems to be sliding into the health data game without triggering the alarms Google’s effort did. There are ethical and commercial questions we should probably be asking about both deals, but as long as Amazon tiptoes slowly into health data collection, it will probably face less of them.