How much information sharing is too much? Listening – or voice-activated – devices seem to be on a slippery slope as the stage is being set for Amazon’s Alexa to start diagnosing our health conditions. On the flip side, these devices are making it easier for some to maintain their health.

We are still at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the many different applications in development positioned to make life hopefully better for millions …  or worse in some cases. Sure, voice commands and listening devices can have a positive impact, but the potential for exploiting personal data is also huge.

Right now, Amazon’s Alexa is out front, paving the way for listening devices to assist patients, like seniors needing home health care, or the visually-impaired who cannot access the internet through traditional means. Seniors who embrace listening devices also find that getting in touch with home health-aids and doctors is much easier with Alexa than without.

The old way of pressing a button on a medical alert pendant during an emergency, like a fall, is slow and antiquated compared to using Amazon’s Alexa. It used to take a while before the “button-pusher” would get a response. Having Alexa always at the ready means that response times are much quicker, which can potentially save lives or prevent further harm.

There are many other useful applications for this technology:

  • Home care aids can streamline getting their patient’s medication, and it can make it easier to keep family caregivers in the loop as well.
  • Healthcare programs can help ensure patients take their medications and follow post-surgery instructions.
  • Drug makers can make it easier for trial participants to share their data.

Just recently, we saw an announcement of a “world-first” collaboration. Amazon has partnered with the UK National Health Service (NHS) in the hopes of offering health advice through its Alexa devices.  The British government says users will be able to ask Alexa easy questions like, “How do I treat a migraine?” After an algorithm searches the NHS website, Alexa will respond with recommendations. The goal is to provide patients with information on common ailments to take some of the burden away from UK doctors.

On the other side of the coin, data security experts are asking, “Is this a data-disaster waiting to happen?” As machine-learning comes into the picture and listening devices gain the ability to anticipate a speaker’s needs, the HIPAA violations could pile up, or have they already?  This technology will certainly change the way we look at privacy. After all, HIPAA regulations are 20 years old and they do not take into account modern technology or the data-processing capabilities of today.

Amazon has come under some scrutiny for its data practices. The company claims that it does not share user information with third-parties or use the data to build customer profiles. However, some users claimed their personal conversations were recorded and then forwarded on to friends in error. Bloomberg also reported that some Amazon employees were listening to recordings and mocking them online.  Clearly, we have many kinks to work out when it comes to listening devices, the companies that create them, and the regulations surrounding our personal health information.

Curious about all the ways we protect sensitive data at Sepire? Reach out to us to learn more.