Meet Amazon Silk: The New Browser That Stalks You

There are some scary privacy concerns about the Kindle Fire's browser

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Yesterday Amazon not only announced its new tablet, but it also debuted a new browser to go along with it: Silk. Unlike other browsers, Silk is a "split browser," as Apple employee 8 Chris Espinosa explains on his blog. "The 'split browser' notion is that Amazon will use its EC2 back end to pre-cache user web browsing, using its fat back-end pipes to grab all the web content at once so the lightweight Fire-based browser has to only download one simple stream from Amazon’s servers." In other words: Silk speeds up user experience, sending all the browser heavy lifting to its cloud. But while faster Web surfing is great, Espinosa points out some serious privacy implications. "This means is that Amazon will capture and control every Web transaction performed by Fire users," he writes. Is forking over to data to Amazon worth the enhanced browsing experience?

Amazon presents two big defenses for Silk: speed and convenience. The browser loads faster because a lot of the work happens on Amazon's servers, as Amazon's director of software development for Amazon Silk Joe Jenkins said in a Silk promotional video. "We’ve extended that with the Amazon computing cloud to offer a virtually limitless cache for the common files images, cascading style sheets, JavaScripts that are used to render the web pages you use every day . . . that’s all atop Amazon computing utility systems so it doesn’t take a single byte of storage from the device itself." But beyond speed, Amazon explains its other benefit: Silk knows you. Since it has all of your information on its servers, it can determine what pages you want to see, or at least that's what Amazon intends to do with all the information it catalogues, explains Ars Technica's Ryan Paul.

Amazon can also use its massive cloud storage infrastructure to cache enormous amounts of content that is commonly loaded by users, ensuring that it is instantly available to transmit. Amazon intends to put its machine learning expertise to use determining which pages users are likely to load so that the relevant content can be aggressively pre-cached and ready when needed. 

But these user experience enhancements come with a price: Privacy. Since Silk transmits most of the data to its servers, Amazon can collect a lot of data, as Espinosa explains:

People who cringe at the data-mining implications of the Facebook Timeline ought to be just floored by the magnitude of Amazon’s opportunity here. Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping in and what prices they’re being offered there. What’s more, Amazon is getting this not by expensive, proactive scraping the Web, like Google has to do; they’re getting it passively by offering a simple caching service, and letting Fire users do the hard work of crawling the Web. In essence the Fire user base is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, scraping the Web for free and providing Amazon with the most valuable cache of user behavior in existence. 

Amazon will know a lot about you. For Amazon, whose end game is to sell you things, it's pretty brilliant, believes Splat F's Dan Frommer, who writes that Silk is "also great--if a bit creepy." Amazon claims it will use the information to better user experience, but perhaps in a time of hyper-awareness about Internet privacy, users won't stand for data abuse, at least that's what David Ulevitch, CEO of Internet security service, OpenDNS hopes. "Armed with that savvy that exists now, consumers now know they are giving something to Amazon--so the burden is on Amazon to say how it will use the data or make the benefits so compelling that consumers don’t care just as Google does. It's worth remembering that Google is open in many areas, but none of their openness is in the areas that matter," he told GigaOm's Om Malik.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.