Your health records are online, and Amazon wants you to wear Alexa on your face

by | Sep 27, 2019

This week’s news was flooded with a wealth of sensitive medical information landing on the internet, and perhaps, in the wrong hands. Sixteen million patient scans were exposed online, the European Court of Justice ruled Google does not need to remove links to sensitive information, and Amazon released new Alexa products for you to wear everywhere you go.

Over five million patients have had their privacy breached and their private health information exposed online. These documents contain highly sensitive data, like names, birthdays, and in some cases, social security numbers. Worse, the list of compromised medical record systems is rapidly increasing, and the data can all be accessed with a traditional web browser. In fact, Jackie Singh, a cybersecurity researcher and chief executive of the consulting firm Spyglass Security, reports “[i]t’s not even hacking,” because the data is so easily accessible to the average person (Source).

One of these systems belongs to MobilexUSA, whose records, which showed patients’ names, date of birth, doctors, and a list of procedures, were found online (Source

Experts report that this could be a direct violation of HIPAA and many warn that the potential consequences of this leak are devastating, as medical data is so sensitive, and if in the wrong hands, could be used maliciously (Source).

According to Oleg Pianykh, the director of medical analytics at Massachusetts General Hospital’s radiology department, “[m]edical-data security has never been soundly built into the clinical data or devices, and is still largely theoretical and does not exist in practice.” (Source

Such a statement signals a privacy crisis in the healthcare industry that requires a desperate fix. According to Pianykh, the problem is not a lack of regulatory standards, but rather that “medical device makers don’t follow them.” (Source) If that is the case, should we expect HIPAA to crackdown the same way GDPR has?

With a patient’s privacy up in the air in the US, a citizens’ “Right to be Forgotten” in the EU is also being questioned. 

The “Right to be Forgotten” states that “personal data must be erased immediately where the data are no longer needed for their original processing purpose, or the data subject has withdrawn [their] consent” (Source). This means that upon request, a data “controller” must erase any personal data in whatever means necessary, whether that is physical destruction or permanently over-writing data with “special software.” (Source)

When this law was codified in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it was implemented to govern over Europe. Yet, France’s CNIL fined Google, an American company, $110,000 in 2016 for refusing to remove private data from search results. Google argued changes should not need to be applied to the google.com domain or other non-European sites (Source). 

On Tuesday, The European Court of Justice agreed and ruled that Google is under no obligation to extend EU rules beyond European borders by removing links to sensitive personal data (Source). However, the court made a distinct point that Google “must impose new measures to discourage internet users from going outside the EU to find that information.” (Source) This decision sets a precedent for the application of a nation’s laws outside its borders when it comes to digital data. 

While the EU has a firm stance on the right to be forgotten, Amazon makes clear that you can “automatically delete [your] voice data”… every three to eighteen months (Source). The lack of immediate erasure is potentially troublesome for those concerned with their privacy, especially alongside the new product launch, which will move Alexa out of your home and onto your body.

On Wednesday, Amazon launched Alexa earbuds (Echo Buds), glasses (Echo Frames), and rings (Echo Loop). The earbuds are available on the marketplace, but the latter two are an experiment and are only available by invitation for the time being (Source). 

With these products, you will be able to access Alexa support wherever you are, and in the case of the EchoBuds, harness the noise-reduction technology of Bose for only USD $130 (Source). However, while these products promise to make your life more convenient, in using these products Amazon will be able to monitor your daily routines, behaviour, quirks, and more. 

Amazon specified that their goal is to make Alexa “ubiquitous” and “ambient” by spreading it everywhere, including our homes, appliances, cars, and now, our bodies. Yet, at the same time as they open up about their strategy for lifestyle dominance, Amazon claims to prioritize privacy, as the first tech giant to allow users to opt-out of their voice data being transcribed and listened to by employees. Despite this, it is clear that “Alexa’s ambition and a truly privacy-centric customer experience do not go hand in hand.” (Source). 

With Amazon spreading into wearables, Google winning the “Right to be Forgotten” case, and patient records being exposed online, this week is wrapping up to be a black mark on user privacy. Stay tuned for our next weekly news blog to learn about how things shape up. 

Join our newsletter