An American Editor

October 5, 2011

Privacy in the World of Silk

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.



  1. You’re absolutely right that this is a generational thing. Being on Facebook myself (though I mostly hate it), I see this a lot. Friends my age, they share pictures and some status updates with close friends. My cousin, who is 15, shares EVERYTHING. Most of it is just uninteresting (unless you’re stalking her) details of her life, but I’ve seen her get into fights with other classmates where they devolve into nasty name calling. And I mean nasty. I’m no prude, I just think it’s completely stupid. It’s all out there in the open. Her mom and dad are friends too.

    Amazon has claimed that their privacy policy strictly states that they only use the data from Silk to diagnose technical issues. We’ll see about that. Surely they’re benevolent and good. 0-]

    For the record, though, you can turn this feature of Silk off. They announced that there is a setting where you can “browse in off-line mode” which basically means that everything is rendered directly on the browser and not through their cloud. Of course, this is turned off by default, so only people who actually care about privacy might even discover that it’s there.


    Comment by Damon J Courtney — October 5, 2011 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  2. “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?”

    Because the government has a monopoly on the use of force. The army and police have guns. Amazon and Facebook don’t. There is a fundamental difference between the government and corporations — that is, unless you’re in a society where you can’t tell the two apart. I don’t think we’re at that point.

    That having been said, I’m entirely with you when you ask why we’re so willing to hand over our data to companies. Maybe it’s because the younger generations haven’t lived through anything resembling a crisis. Once they do, they won’t be so gung-ho about it. Of course, by that time, they won’t be the younger generations anymore!

    But the reason I mention above is why we don’t have the same reaction to corporations having our data as we do to the government having it.


    Comment by Ben Lukoff — October 5, 2011 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  3. “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.”

    I am constantly amazed at what people post on the Internet about themselves. I honestly don’t think many even consider the possible long-term ramifications. But as you say, maybe it’s a generational thing.


    Comment by Vicki — October 6, 2011 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  4. Amazon’s access to and control of Kindle devices is why I haven’t gotten one, and probably never will, even though I’m sorely tempted by the new basic one.


    Comment by Carolyn — October 7, 2011 @ 7:50 am | Reply

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