One of the things I dislike most about Facebook, and a primary reason why I am not on Facebook, is the necessity to check privacy settings nearly hourly. Even then, I’m not convinced that Facebook is really adhering to any policy that affords users even a modicum of privacy.

That disease of controlling information keeps spreading. Now with Amazon’s new Silk browser, which is part and parcel of the new Kindle Fire, the stakes have perhaps gotten higher. This may well be the first salvo in the conversion of Kindles from local control by the user to remote control by Amazon. I expect the day will come when to use an Amazon device, the device’s wi-fi/3G will have to be on.

Silk, which is the Amazon-designed Internet browser that the Fire tablet uses, may have serious security and privacy issues. Silk pipes the user’s online access — and cloud access — through Amazon’s servers. There is no way to access the Internet without going through Amazon. This gives Amazon the capability to follow user Web clicks, buying patterns, and media habits.

With this capability, Amazon now has what every retailer lusts after: knowledge that cannot be gotten any other way. Silk and Amazon servers will enable Amazon to watch where you shop and what prices you are offered.

I know that many Amazon fans think they will welcome this capability because it may well mean lower Amazon prices or an instant special offer from Amazon to beat a competitor’s price just for you. But is that what we really want? Do we really want Big Brother watching our every online move?

Our response appears to be a generational one. The younger the user, the less concerned about privacy the user is. This has become evident by who is exposing what on places like Facebook. Many people of my generation are aghast at the willingness of younger people to expose everything online. Younger users appear not to be overly worried about who will see their escapades or the ramifications their actions.

The lack of privacy seems to expand daily. Is there a line that cannot be crossed with impunity? By forcing users to the cloud, Amazon is saying there is no privacy line that cannot be crossed. I keep seeing visions of Minority Report with Amazon and Facebook in the role of the precogs except that unlike the precogs, their role is not for the social good.

I admit that until Amazon starts gathering the data and begins using it, we do not know how far Amazon will go or whether Amazon will misuse the data collected. Amazon fans will jump on this to downplay privacy concerns.

But the real issue isn’t whether Amazon will misuse the data; rather, should Amazon be collecting the data in the first place? Why is it that we will protest warrantless searches and seizures by the people we hire to protect us from evil, but not a similar, if not same, disregard for our privacy by outfits like Amazon and Facebook? I find it troubling that we think we are able to create a distinction that is meaningful to us between the two. Corporations are as ruthless in the pursuit of power and money as are the politicians and police forces we hire to safeguard us.

Sadly, it is nearly impossible to teach someone the value of privacy until they have been the victim of a privacy abuse. Experience is the only acceptable teacher. But now that we are beginning to see corporations creating methods of stripping our privacy bare, perhaps we should think more about what limits there should be. The longer we permit ourselves to be stripped, the more difficult it will become to correct course.

And that is the problem with Amazon’s new Kindle Fire and its Silk browser: The process of privacy intrusion will be slow, deliberate, and evolutionary. By the time we recognize how invasive the process is, we may no longer be able to do anything about it. Isn’t that the case with Facebook? Will that be true, too, of Amazon? No matter how much we like the bargains and service Amazon provides, we do need to step back and consider the ramifications of Amazon’s moving millions of people to its cloud, enabling it to data harvest without impediment.

Via An American Editor


  1. “The younger the user, the less concerned about privacy the user is.”

    Well, I guess a generic nick I use on each site – different for each site where I post – together with a throw-away registration mail address makes me Old Fart (TM) 😉

    Seriously. Those privacy issues make me worried.

    Yours truly
    Name (required)

  2. Worried about Silk privacy?
    Easy fix: use OPERA, SKYFIRE, DOLPHIN, or FIREFOX.
    They should run just fine.
    That not enough? Don’t buy Fire, don’t buy Kindle, don’t buy from Amazon.
    Trust me, nobody’s going to drive by to kneecap you.

    Different people have different levels of tolerance and should be allowed to make their own choices and live with the consequences. There is no law that says you *have* to save them from themselves. Or that it can even be done. In fact, entire countries have driven themselves to the verge to backrupcy trying.

    This whole modern trend of trying to protect people from their stupidity and bad decisions, even *theoretical* ones they have yet to face is getting out of hand. What, are we to declare a moratorium on new technologies, new business models, new products until the current generation of hand-wringing pundits dies out?

    So what if some future Amazon product only works while connected? Lots of devices, current and historical depended on external content. TVs and radios come to mind. The old french minitel internet-competitor only worked though the phone lines and french civilization didn’t exactly collapse. For three decades the only way to use any computer was through dedicated dumb termnals where every single keystroke was monitored by a glasshouse priest hood. Mainframing is still going on all over and its even been logged at many places. The sun hasn’t gone nova yet.

    Nobody is going to be forced to buy a Fire or use silk.
    But assuming Fire is wildly successful and every owner is instantly smitten and spends all their time glued to its screen (with apologies to Dr Who) the end result will be, at most, a collapse of the backend servers. There is no magical data that Amazon can datamine out of silk browsing histories that it and Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and any other online giant don’t already know. Yes, people who frequent porn sites are more likely to buy erotica ebooks. Yes, people connected to the NPR website are more likely to jump to the NYT site next, instead of Foxnews. And more likely to grocery shop at Whole Foods. Newsflash: this kind of personalized profiling is Google’s bread and butter. It’s what Nielsen has been doing for 50+ years. It is nothing new.

    Privacy is a delusion shared by maybe 10% of the human race.
    The other 90% is not even burdened by that. A couple billion *know* their governments spies on them, another billion live in a belief system that makes them *responsible* for the morals of their neighbors. And the rest of us live surrounded by nosy, gossiping neighbors and relatives.
    Privacy? Ask the anonymous hackers about privacy, online or offline.

    Fire is not the end of civilization.
    It isn’t anything all that special; just another tech toy that will let Amazon make a couple millions in profit. By itself, nothing to make or break the company. But as the politician said, “A million here and a milion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

  3. Felix, what you manage to overlook in your rant is that people who would prefer to protect their privacy may not be aware of the many ways in which it’s being invaded. It isn’t just a matter of which browser you use or whether you should or should buy the latest Kindle. Rich’s post addresses those concerns, yours basically says “suck it up.”

  4. Felix – I find your post just silly and flippant.

    However I suspect the Fire will sell well. Awareness of the insidious path Amazon are leading it’s customers on, via Silk, is not fully appreciated by most people as yet. The marketing hype is in full flow.

    However the market is still developing and as competition develops, those competitors will make this privacy issue a huge competition issue and then people will start to wake up to what Amazon is doing. I suspect they will be forced to backtrack within 6 months and the question then will be what damage to their credibility will have been done ?

    Facebook is developing a damaging reputation for not respecting privacy and it is hurting them. Google+ is growing exponentially and Facebook is being forced to respond fast. Amazon may regret adopting the same flippant and indifferent attitude as Felix.

  5. Rich,
    You lost me as soon as you said “Big Brother.”

    This isn’t a global conspiracy to turn you into a mindless drone for the state… it’s one company’s effort to find things to sell to you, as companies are wont to do. And you’re always free to say “No, thanks.” And use something else to browse the web, as you most likely already have.

    You mention Facebook’s robbing us of our privacy before we knew what was happening… but you’ll notice that everyone is aware of Facebook’s privacy issues, always have been, and there are plenty of voices warning people about it seemingly every hour of the day. And again, you’re always free to get off of Facebook if you don’t like the way it’s run. The same will apply here.

    People willingly give up one thing (especially privacy and info about themselves) in order to gain something else, and unless they are 6 or younger, they understand that they don’t have total control over that. That’s not Big Brother… that’s Big Box.

  6. Read “The Filter Bubble” or the many other books that document how every communication we make on the Internet is being tracked and added to massive profiles compiled on each of us, regardless of browser, add-ons or privacy settings. This is the beast, not even considering what NSA and foreign intelligence agencies along with voyeuristic ISP employees access. Protesting Amazon Silk and cloud-based browsing is an emperor with no clothes. There are 2 basic choices – acknowledge that a band of big brothers and sisters are always watching and hope for the best, or disconnect. In between, there is always the hope that legislation and court cases will marginally help but I don’t have too much faith in that.

    By the way, your cell phone provider probably knows more about you than Google or Amazon does – and shares it with the feds…

  7. There is also a “victim mentality” going on here. Opt in (use Amazon and Facebook) or opt out … it’s a plain choice. I also find it hard to believe that anyone will be shocked, SHOCKED!, to learn that vendors datamine your interactions with them for their nefarious capitalistic purposes.

    Kindle Fire looks to be a strong device serving an entertainment need (and desire). Customers can choose from many alternatives if they don’t like what “Brother Amazon” is delivering.

  8. “There is no way to access the Internet without going through Amazon.” Paul, how is that so when Amazon has stated that the Fire can use the Web without the Silk servers:

    “You can also choose to operate Amazon Silk in basic or “off-cloud” mode. Off-cloud mode allows web pages generally to go directly to your computer rather than pass through our servers. As such, it does not take advantage of Amazon’s cloud computing services to speed-up web content delivery.”

  9. Catana: Anyone who doesn’t know about Facebook’s privacy issues is simply not paying attention. It is not only discussed on the web ad nauseam, it is in print, on the TV and radio regularly.

    finrind: The example most often used would be Amazon’s selling info about your buying, say, golf clubs, to every golf club manufacturer, allowing them to target ads to you to buy their clubs. The more nefarious example would be Amazon’s selling info about your buying, say, X-rated photos, to the CIA so they could start tracking your every movement and putting you on a secret “Pervert” list. Take your pick which is more likely.

  10. And when that pervert puts a webcam into your ceiling light or sprinkler? You don’t know it’s there, just as the majority of Net users don’t keep up with tech blogs or understand the way the Net actually works.

    I’ve had people actually say to me in puzzlement, “But nobody knows what I do online, because I only do it on my computer.”

    There is a perception of safety and privacy, when you use a device in your own house, or in a quiet moment apart from other people when out, which mitigates against what you may or may not know about the capacity of others to track and record you online. So we do need the reminders and warnings.

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