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  • The UK National Health Service (NHS) data will be given for free to Amazon under a deal between the United States giant and the UK government.

    The UK National Health Service (NHS) data will be given for free to Amazon under a deal between the United States giant and the UK government. | Photo: Reuters

Published 8 December 2019

The multinational tech company will be able to profit from its access to the NHS information by making, advertising and selling its own products.

The United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) data on the health of British people will be given for free to Amazon under a contentious deal between the United States giant and the Conservative government, through the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), according to documents revealed Sunday. 

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Although individual patient data is excluded from the agreement, a copy of the December 2018 contract shows that the multinational technology company will be able to profit from its access to the NHS information, by making, advertising and selling its own products. 

Member of the Conservative Party and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock praised the partnership earlier this year presenting it as a way to help patients with better medical advice through the Alexa technology, a virtual assistant created by Amazon to answer health questions.

“This agreement is about using content from the NHS website to provide reliable and informative answers to basic health questions asked to Amazon's virtual assistant voice service, Alexa,” the contract says.

However, militants from the U.K. based charity Privacy International obtained a full copy of the contract by means of the freedom of information laws, and it reveals the deal between Amazon and the government goes much further than just providing medical advice to users.

It states that the company will access to all “healthcare information, including without limitation symptoms, causes, and definitions, and all related copyrightable content, data, information, and other materials,” owned by the DHSC.

The contract allows thus Amazon, a company worth US$863 billion and ran by the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, to use this data in several ways, among which the creation of  “new products, applications, cloud-based services and/or distributed software,” which the NHS would not benefit from financially. Amazon will also be able to share information with other parties.

In addition, the agreement blocks the DHSC from issuing any publicity without the authorization of Amazon, stating it “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.”

Shadow health secretary from the opposition Labour party Jonathan Ashworth told the Sunday Times that the government was “highly irresponsible” and “in the pocket of big corporate interests.”

Senior researcher at Privacy International Eva Blum-Dumontet said the concern with the deal was not about “data sharing” but about “transparency.” Several sections have been redacted by the DHSC to protect Amazon’s commercial interests.

“While this particular contract may sound harmless at first – after all, it is good news if Amazon uses the NHS as a trusted source for information for medical queries – we should not be naive about the intentions of big companies that are preying over the NHS,” Privacy International said in a report on the contract. 

“This particular partnership also raises questions when it comes to competition regulation of dominant players in the digital era,” it added.

Amazon said that the information being made available to Alexa users was “general health-related content” already freely available on the NHS website, while a spokesperson for the company added that  ”Amazon does not build customer health profiles based on interactions with NHS content or use such requests for marketing purposes.”

The dispute over the use of NHS information comes as Labour party's leader Jeremy Corbyn revealed last month through leaked documents that the NHS is part of negotiations in a trade deal with the United States ahead of the country’s exit from the European Union.

On the other hand, the big six U.S. tech companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Apple, and Microsoft were mentioned in a report by tax transparency campaign group Fair Tax Mark as evading tax by shifting revenue and profits through tax havens or low-tax countries, and for also delaying the payment of taxes they do incur.

The report specifies Amazon as the worst offender.

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