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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 24, 2011 at 10:31 AM

Kindle Fire’s smoldering privacy issue

It looks like the privacy hullabaloo over Amazon.com’s new Web tablet and exotic browser could end before the device goes on sale.

I hope consumers and watchdogs keep paying attention, though.

The Kindle Fire doesn’t go on sale until Nov. 15 (though it can be pre-ordered now), but tech experts began questioning the privacy risks of its Silk browser shortly after the device was unveiled last month.

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Silk runs partly on the device and partly on Amazon’s EC2 computing network, where the company will analyze browsing activity so it can preload bits of Web pages you’re likely to visit.

Amazon anticipated privacy questions and was ready to discuss them at the Kindle Fire launch event in New York last month, but the media coverage focused largely on the new hardware.

Still, the question smoldered, then ignited Oct. 14 when a congressman big on privacy issues fired up. U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked the company to answer a list of questions about the browsing information it would collect and how it would be used. He asked Amazon to respond by Nov. 4.

A leading privacy watchdog, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, also weighed in. But after a phone briefing from Amazon last week, the EFF said Silk may not be as much of a privacy nightmare as it feared.

An analysis posted online by the EFF last week assuaged a number of browser and privacy experts, but they all said more analysis is needed. They also said that while Amazon is saying the right things now, diligence is needed to be sure the company doesn’t misuse the vast amount of browsing information it will collect.

There are benefits to the hybrid approach Amazon is taking with Silk. It’s been around for years, and millions of people now use the Opera Mini browser that has similar technology for accelerating page-load times.

“If it’s done properly, there is no privacy issue with doing that,” said Elie Bursztein, a researcher at the Stanford Security Lab. “It’s actually sort of a good idea as you try to make things faster for the user.”

It helps that Silk runs fine by itself on the device, with the online booster turned off, said Steve Gribble, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Washington.

He built a similar browser for the Palm Pilot in grad school, but it didn’t have access to the huge, advanced network that’s helping power the Silk.

Gribble said the technology is exciting and has all sorts of potential for computer science research, but the privacy concerns are real.

He said Amazon is taking the high road by pledging to not store personally identifiable information, and encrypting communication between the device browser and the cloud.

“They’ve done a good job so far addressing and being frank about the potential privacy concerns,” Gribble said. “In the long run, people need to make sure they continue to do that and they don’t slip down a slope toward misusing information they have access to.”

The EFF’s concerns were addressed in a call from Silk director Jon Jenkins.

“There were some major areas of concern that were abated by our conversation, but I’d say it’s ultimately kind of a trade-off,” said Dan Auerbach, a former Google engineer who is now an EFF staff technologist. “It’s a lot better than we feared in some ways, and the user does get some benefits, notably the fact that their traffic will be encrypted. … But on the other hand, you are trusting Amazon with an incredible amount of information.”

Silk will anticipate pages you’re likely to view, based on browsing activity that it’s seeing and by analyzing in its data centers. Then it will start downloading components of those pages — such as logos on a newspaper site — so the pages load faster on the device.

Amazon won’t index the whole Web, as Google does, Jenkins told me at the launch event in New York. But Silk’s acceleration system will encompass “the vast majority of what I’ll call the popular Web.”

Amazon isn’t crawling the Web like a search engine, he continued, “We’re just using the information flowing through on the (Silk) Web requests to do that.”

Before I could ask, he brought up the privacy issue.

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“Privacy is super important to us, so we don’t store any personally identifiable information about users or what they’re doing on the Web, all of it is completely anonymized,” he said, adding that Amazon has “built a foundation of trust with its customers and we will not do anything to jeopardize that trust.”

To me, the privacy debate around the Silk browser is a little funny.

If you’re truly worried about that sort of thing, perhaps you shouldn’t use a computing device that’s powered by the world’s biggest retailer and a company known for meticulously tracking and analyzing site visitors.

I also keep expecting consumers to rebel against the walled-garden design of Kindles, iPads and Android devices, which are tightly controlled and bound to the platform companies.

Yet consumers seem more than willing to accept the loss of control and privacy risks, because the devices are fun, compelling and useful for communication, productivity and media consumption.

“The truth is that there are risks all over the place,” said Hank Levy, chairman of the UW Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

Levy noted that Internet service providers such as Comcast can see your interactions over the Internet, information is potentially visible to cloud service providers such as Gmail and Hotmail, and services such as Facebook can track your online behavior.

“There’s all kinds of software running in your browser that can track your behavior and does track your behavior,” he said. “At the end of the day a lot of the Internet is being paid for by advertising, and information has value when services are trying to find the best ads for people.”

Gribble said these trade-offs are inevitable. Technology can address some of the concerns, but “in the end it’s going to be law and contracts and responsible disclosure that will help these companies continue to behave well and not abuse the data that they’re increasingly getting access to.”

The big test with the Kindle Fire, at least, will come Nov. 15 when consumers get their first chance to buy Amazon’s cool new tablet for $199 — less than half the price of an iPad. It will be hard to resist a device that looks like a good deal, even for people nervous about how much they’re disclosing nowadays to the big Internet companies.

“There’s a risk that over time you’ll give up too much of your privacy, but you’re getting something in return for it,” Gribble said. “You have to decide whether it’s worth it.”

Comments | Topics: Amazon.com, amazon.com, Android

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