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Dear Google, the NHS is not a security risk or “bot”

The National Health Service (NHS) is many things but we like to think that among those things, “benevolent” is prime among them. That’s clearly not the case if you’re Google, as an incident yesterday showed all too well.

According to a story broken on The Register and reflected in a number of outlets since (we repeat it here partlyy because it’s funny but for other reasons we’ll come to), there was a surge of demand for Google’s services from a particular hospital and the search giant’s automatic defences assumed it was a Distributed Denial of Service attack and shut the medical personnel out immediately.

NHS ramifications

The stand-out points here are twofold. One, Google has made a bit of an ass of itself. It happens, an algorithm comes across something it wasn’t expecting, we have a giggle, we move on.

The second, perhaps surprising, thing is that the NHS reportedly uses Google as the go-to source of information (personal note: your editor has seen this, when his child was ill years ago the doctors were straight onto Google at an NHS hospital). This is a good thing as long as the sources listed on Google are reliable (and yes of course we know nobody is “listed on Google” as such, this is intended figuratively).

Medical staff will obviously draw on their experience and other sources to back up any diagnoses that may arise from a simple web search. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether this actually highlights a hitherto un-detected form of privatisation by the back door. People have protested about outsourcing and putting the NHS into private hands pretty often; has the first resort for diagnosticians been privatised already, and we just haven’t noticed? And if so, assuming it actually works most of the time, does it matter?