Amazon’s new Silk browser has lawmakers worried about privacy

by Phil Hornshaw

When Amazon announced its new Kindle Fire Android tablet, it also announced a new piece of web-browsing software called Silk. And that piece of software has some people worried about Amazon getting ahold of a lot of private data.

The Silk web browser is Amazon’s solution to keeping the Fire cheap while dealing with troubles it might have with performance by using less powerful components in constructing the device. The 7-inch tablet hits shelves next month at a mere $199, making it extremely competitively priced by tablet standards. The trade-off, however, is that the tablet can’t be that powerful, which means its speeds for doing some of the things Amazon intends for it to do – such as surf the Internet – are probably pretty slow compared to some of the heavier hitters in the tablet world, like Apple’s iPad or Samsung’s Galaxy Tab line.

To deal with that problem, Amazon created Silk, a “split” browsing experience. When you browse the Internet on a Kindle Fire, the tablet handles only part of the load of rendering the page on your screen. Amazon kicks the heavier lifting out to its EC2 cloud server, which process the page and sends back a compressed version of it to the user. The result, Amazon says, is much faster browsing. According to some members of Congress though, it means Amazon knows everywhere you go on the Internet at the least.

According to a story from PCWorld, members of the U.S. House subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade have raised concerns about Silk because it means that sending all that data to Amazon’s servers gives them a look at everything you’d do online. Imagine signing-in to your bank account from your Fire tablet. That would mean sending your login data to Amazon first, then having Amazon bounce the information on to your bank’s website. Amazon receives the information about every site you want to look at because it helps you load them. The company has said that Silk data will remain anonymous, but that’s still a lot of trust to put in a company that has much to gain from knowing exactly what you do online.

Massachusetts Democraft Ed Markey, a member of the subcommittee, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking for specific information about Silk and the way data would be used by Amazon. The letter asks for an explanation about what info Amazon will collect from its Kindle Fire tablets; how Amazon will use that information; how Amazon will convey its privacy policy to Fire users; and whether Amazon will allow users to opt out of data collection, should Silk be used for that purpose.

For Amazon’s part, the company has said that Silk can be switched off, although users who opt not to use it will lose its speedy benefits. Meanwhile, the privacy concerns could be pretty big, if the Kindle is as popular as it appears it will be. The low price seems like it could make the Fire a huge hit, and anonymous sources have said Amazon is selling something like 25,000 a day in pre-orders. With Amazon’s backing and cloud structure to lean on, plus its great price, the Kindle Fire could be in a lot of hands in the very near future.

And that means that lots of users’ browsing information could end up in Amazon’s hands, making it way easy to target advertising, for example. While Amazon says that information will remain anonymous, one wonders for just how long that might be the case, especially if the company is pressured by law enforcement or some legal action in the future. It’s hard to predict what might happen with all that data in the future, but hopefully Amazon will be providing more answers soon.