PAtient privacy is protected since Hippocrates in 400 BC. It may all be coming to an end. Amazon last week announced its intention to buy One Medical, which is a healthcare provider that serves over 700,000.
Big Tech has been experimenting with healthcare for many years. Amazon’s direct entry into primary health care is a turning point. This will make surveillance capitalism more dangerous, which has implications for all.
Amazon is able to track what our guilty pleasures are, including what products we purchase, how much we spend on pills, and what content we listen and watch. The devices can listen inside our homes and see out from our Amazon Ring doorbells. Amazon’s “Kuiper” satellites will soon connect our Internet.
Recent revelations have shown that Amazon is using data it has collected, even though this was for innocent purposes. This betrays our trust. Amazon employees claim that there is no limit to how Amazon can use this data within its own organization. According to Amazon’s former head of information security: “We have no idea where our fucking data is.”
One Medical is able to access health information regarding children, elderly and families. It also includes details about addiction, mental illness, and intimate matters. Amazon is unlikely to treat the new data in a better way than how it treated its data hoard.
Amazon is not safe with our secrets. It isn’t just Amazon customers who are at high risk. Nearly all other companies selling through Amazon or competing with Amazon are at risk. Amazon can use data it collects from one area of its business for other purposes. It competes against retailers who sell through its platform, for example by using its insider information about the businesses of its customers. More data – especially intimate data – increases Amazon’s market power over consumers and competitors.
We can allow Amazon medical clinics to be run. Will this also mean that Amazon will have the ability to offer health insurance? The future is bleak. An all-knowing entity will exploit our vulnerabilities to not only provide healthcare, but also to generate revenue.
It isn’t a hypothetical concern. The business model employed by internet giants, surveillance capitalism, is defined by the extraction of data from all sources, the creation of models of collective and individual human behavior, and the use of global apps – like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Amazon – to steer users towards desired behaviors. Already, we have seen massive damage from surveillance capitalism. This includes the undermining and amplification disinformation in a pandemic and the ethnic cleansing of Myanmar.
Google and Microsoft, like Amazon and Microsoft, have won large contracts from the federal government. Google holds a stronghold on public education. The threat to civil liberties which surveillance capitalists might pose have been ignored by policymakers.
What makes Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical especially troubling is that it would enable the extension of surveillance capitalism beyond advertising-driven platforms into the real world, and it would do so in health care, one of the most sensitive categories of data. Amazon isn’t the only one.
Amazon’s acquisition of One Medical requires regulatory approval. This transaction will allow the Federal Trade Commission to not only fulfill its antitrust obligation, but to also protect consumers’ privacy. Previous efforts to ensure consumer privacy have been ineffective under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. (HIPAA), as data from prescriptions and medical tests are not protected. HIPAA is not clear on how models made with protected data will be affected by HIPAA.
Although we don’t know if Amazon will use the One Medical data, there are no reasons to assume that Amazon would. Today’s surveillance capitalism offers little protection to consumers. Congress has only a few measures that address the issue. This leaves consumers vulnerable to predatory behaviors and the FTC the most effective protection.
The government used to have the responsibility of protecting consumers. This should change. Unregulated personal data use can cause serious harm. This is well-known and widely understood. No excuse should be given for any further delays. Blocking Amazon’s proposed acquisition of One Medical will not solve the problem, but it will send an essential message that the government will finally use the tools at its disposal to protect Americans.
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