One of the cornerstones of the new Amazon Fire tablet is its Silk browser. Silk promises a cloud-powered lighting fast browser experience that greatly enhances the web surfing experience and warms you to the Kindle Fire. While the Kindle Fire is only available in the United States at present, the way Amazon delivers on its promises bears a review for anyone concerned about privacy since it is probably only a matter of time before the legal and commercial issues that presently limits the Fire to the US will be overcome and the new Kindle tablet will go into wider distribution.
Silk accomplishes its promise of a fast browsing experience by taking browser information requests and communicating it back to the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud 2 (Amazon EC2) which returns a cache of the desired web site optimized for Amazon Silk. In short, Amazon EC2 does all the heavy lifting in terms of processor cycles and shoots the result by to the Fire tablet. Amazon EC2 is part of the little known Amazon Web Services (AWS) arm of Amazon. AWS provides back end computing services, including storage, e-commerce and web hosting to a surprising number of businesses who don’t want to run extensive IT departments and/or server farms.
Browsing the web discloses a lot of information such as your interests, political, prurient and commercial. Amazon already knows a lot about what you buy, and Silk makes it even easier because it tracks where you go on the web when you are not on Amazon’s web site. The process that Silk uses has to communicate everything, including encrypted information through the Amazon EC2 servers. In many cases, the optimized web page is in fact a cached copy based on a prediction of what you are likely to ask for next. For example, if you are reading an article on line about the World Rugby Cup the service is likely to cache the entire article and perhaps rugby related content in the expectation that is what you will ask for next.
What concerns many about Amazon Silk is that, according to AWS’s and Silk’s own stated privacy policies, the information that Amazon collects will be held for at least thirty days. This information can be subject to disclosure via a court order or subpoena. Right now this matters only for users in the United States but if the service is rolled out to a wider audience, Amazon could find itself in the same position that Research in Motion found itself in when governments, particularly India and in the Middle East, demand access to information contained on Amazon servers, particularly if those servers are located in the country making the request. Adding complexity is the fact that as a US company, Amazon is subject to the Patriot Act, an American anti-terrorist law that gives US law enforcement access to computer records with a court order, even if the person is not a US citizen and does not live in the US.
Amazon has not responded publically to explain how it intends to address these issues or even to acknowledge that they exist. However, if you plan to get a Kindle Fire and use it outside of the US, these are all things that prudent users of the Internet should bear in mind.