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Technology Healthcare Workers Sue Amazon Over Potential HIPAA Violations With Alexa Device

06:51  03 july  2021
06:51  03 july  2021 Source:   newsweek.com

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Typically, health care workers can only share a patient’s health information with the patient and others in the health care system, according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ( HIPAA ). When a patient asks Alexa to check their blood sugar reading, the device accesses that data from the Livongo cloud and tells the patient. But the patient information is stored with Livongo and Amazon can’t do anything with it, says Livongo chief product officer Amar Kendale.

Alexa certainly has considerable potential in healthcare . Alexa could be used by physicians to transcribe medical notes or as a virtual assistant in physicians’ offices. Last month, Oxana Pickeral, Global Segment Leader for Healthcare & Life Sciences at Amazon Web Services, acknowledged that HIPAA was an issue that needs to be overcome before Alexa could be widely used in healthcare . She explained that the Diabetes Challenge has helped to demonstrate the potential of the technology.

A lawsuit against Amazon was filed this week by some healthcare workers who allege that their Alexa devices have been recording their conversations.

The updated Echo Dot, is displayed in Amazon's Day 1 building in Seattle on September 20, 2018. Healthcare workers are suing Amazon for allegedly recording conversations that are HIPAA-protected through their Amazon Alexa devices. © GRANT HINDSLEY/AFP via Getty Images The updated Echo Dot, is displayed in Amazon's Day 1 building in Seattle on September 20, 2018. Healthcare workers are suing Amazon for allegedly recording conversations that are HIPAA-protected through their Amazon Alexa devices.

Healthcare IT News reported that four plaintiffs believe their Amazon Alexa devices may have seized information, such as private conversations with patients, that are HIPAA protected.

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Amazon 's AI-enabled digital assistant Alexa is adding to its Skills repertoire with a handful of HIPAA -compliant healthcare services. The e-commerce giant announced on Thursday that it's partnered with six companies, including healthcare providers, to offer a series of Alexa Skills that For its part, Amazon is providing the HIPAA -eligible environment in which the skills are built -- and the company will most certainly use this environment to add more healthcare -related skills over time. The corporate partnerships announced today are with prescription delivery provider Express Scripts; Cigna

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, commonly known as HIPAA , is a series of regulatory standards that talks about the lawful use and disclosure of protected health information (PHI). HIPAA compliance is regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services On a quiet Saturday morning, we did some elective surgery on a local/national celebrity. Someone was so excited, that they posted “hints” and “clues” to the celebrity’s name, on Facebook. Before the surgery was over , that person was escorted from the OR to the waiting handcuffs of the Police authorities.

"Amazon's conduct in surreptitiously recording consumers has violated federal and state wiretapping, privacy, and consumer protection laws," the lawsuit read.

It added: "Despite Alexa's built-in listening and recording functionalities, Amazon failed to disclose that it makes, stores, analyzes and uses recordings of these interactions at the time plaintiffs' and putative class members' purchased their Alexa devices."

The plaintiffs, of which one is a substance abuse counselor and another a healthcare customer service representative, said that the recording of their conversations with patients was a direct violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that they work under, which protects their patients' privacy.

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Accessing the health records of patients for reasons other than those permitted by the Privacy Rule – treatment, payment, and healthcare operations – is a violation of patient privacy. Snooping on healthcare records of family, friends, neighbors, co- workers , and celebrities is one of the most common HIPAA violations committed by employees. When discovered, these violations usually result in termination of employment but could also result in criminal charges for the employee concerned.

Seattle-based Amazon says Alexa can now transfer sensitive, personal health information using software that meets health -privacy requirements under federal law. Five companies, including insurer Cigna Corp. , diabetes-management company Livongo Health Inc. and major hospital systems, said they developed new Alexa features for consumers using HIPAA violations can expose health - care companies to penalties and criminal charges. Consumers have been measured in their willingness to use Alexa for all but basic tasks, raising questions about whether the new features will be used widely.

The cited a study by Northeastern University, which demonstrated how an Alexa device can be woken by "wake words" or phrases that trigger them to start recording and transmitting what it hears.

Asking the device things like, "Alexa, is it going to rain?" will wake it as it answers the question.

The study looked at how many times an Alexa might "wake up" accidentally. They found that statements like "I care about," "I messed up," and "I got something" would trigger the Alexa, and even things like "head coach," "pickle" and "I'm sorry" woke it up too.

An article from Northeastern University quoted David Choffnes, an associate professor of computer sciences at the university, saying, "A lot of us, when we think about being in our home, we think that's a private space where we can have conversations that are intended not to be shared. And now we have all these devices with microphones that could be taking those conversations and sharing them."

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Six new Alexa healthcare skills from industry-leading healthcare providers, payors, pharmacy benefit managers, and digital health coaching companies are now operating in our HIPAA -eligible environment. Amazon Alexa is currently providing a HIPAA eligible environment to select skill developers as part of an invite-only program in the U.S. In the future, we expect to enable additional developers to access this capability to build healthcare skills, allowing more customers to access healthcare services more conveniently using voice.

Once Alexa is HIPAA compliant, providers will need to execute a Business Associate Agreement with Amazon or its related entities. Providers should implement and revise their policies and procedures to ensure device use is compliant with HIPAA . Providers should update their privacy notice to include the use of Alexa or other Alexa -enabled devices . HIPAA -eligible Alexa skills must also adhere to the following requirements, listed below, in order to pass a certification review. Note that these guidelines might change over time.

There are also multiple studies that show Amazon uses human intelligence to listen to conversations, which is the second aspect of the lawsuit mentioned by the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit mentioned that in 2019, Amazon announced an effort to ensure that transcripts of conversations, whether transcribed by AI or humans, would be deleted from Alexa's servers, but the lawsuit argued that "By then, Amazon's analysts may have already listened to the recordings before that ability was enabled."

A spokesperson from Amazon shared a statement with Newsweek that read, "Alexa and Echo devices are designed to only detect your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer, or Echo). No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button)."

Amazon confirmed that if the Alexa device is recording, the blue light indicator will always appear, which means it will always indicate when it is recording something.

"Our annotation process does not associate voice recordings with any customer identifiable information," Amazon stated. "Customers can opt-out of having their voice recordings included in the fraction of one percent of voice recordings that get reviewed."

They added, "Customers have several options to manage their recordings, including the option to not have their recordings saved at all and the ability to automatically delete recordings on an ongoing three- or 18-month basis."

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