Amazon Silk Browser Faces Privacy Probe


US lawmakers are concerned that Amazon’s Silk web browser tracks people’s browsing habits

The ability of Amazon’s Silk browser to collect users’ web surfing history is at the centre of  Congressional scrutiny.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos 28 September introduced Silk as one of the empowering features of the 7-inch, Android-based Kindle Fire tablet, which is launching 15 November for $199 (£126).

Silk relies on Amazon’s Elastic Computer Cloud (EC2) Web services platform to swiftly process and retrieve web pages. Silk “learns” about traffic patterns on individual sites over time, allowing it to begin fetching the next page that users may wish to visit.

Privacy Concerns

In order for Silk to execute this pre-fetching, the company said it temporarily logs whole URLs, or web addresses, for the web pages it serves, as well as IP or MAC addresses, which are linked to users computing devices. That approach isn’t sitting well with members of Congress.

House Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who is co-chairman of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent Bezos a letter complaining that Silk harvests too much user information. In the letter, dated 14 October, Markey expressed concern that Silk will enable Amazon to collect an “extraordinary amount” of data about users’ web surfing and purchasing habits.

“By coupling the Fire with Silk, Amazon can essentially track each and every web click of its customers,” Markey wrote. “Amazon will know where people shop, what items they buy, when they buy them, and how much they pay.”

Markey wasn’t the first Congressmen to cry foul on Amazon’s Silk browser. His letter came one day after House Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) said he was concerned that Silk can funnel all user browsing data through Amazon’s  servers. According to Electronists, Barton said:

“My staff yesterday told me that one of our leading Internet companies, Amazon, is going to create their own server and their own system and they’re going to force everybody that uses Amazon to go through their server and they’re going to collect all this information on each person who does that without that person’s knowledge. Enough is enough.”

Enough isn’t enough for Markey, who is drilling deeper into the issue than Barton. Markey requested Amazon answer these questions:

  • What information does Amazon plan to collect about users of the Kindle Fire?
  • How does Amazon intend to use this information? (for example, will it sell or rent this info to third-party companies)
  • How will Amazon convey its privacy policy to Fire and Silk users?
  • If Amazon plans to collect information about its users’ Web browsing habits, will customers be able to opt in to participate in the data sharing program?

Amazon, which will not keep info collected in Silk for more than 30 days, stressed that data it collects is done so anonymously and stored in aggregate, with no personal identifiable information stored.

Kindle Fire

Kindle Fire users who are still concerned about the way Silk collects browsing and IP info may switch to off-cloud mode, so that searches they do on the Fire don’t traverse Amazon’s pipes and into its cloud.

Even so, it’s clear Amazon will have to do a better job communicating its steps to preserve user privacy in the days leading up to the Fire’s launch next month. Expect a response from Amazon’s legal counsel to Markey soon.

The scrutiny shows just how much closer Amazon has moved into the privacy orbit normally reserved for rival Google, whose search engine and location service data collection continually irks Congress.

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