Gary Marshall: Amazon wants to watch your web browsing

Gary Marshall: Amazon wants to watch your web browsing

Gary Marshall: Amazon wants to watch your web browsing

Amazon’s very proud of its new Silk web browser, which brings Amazon’s mighty backend to the job of speeding up web browsing – so proud, in fact, that it seems the firm plans to bring it to other people’s devices too. Is it a Trojan horse?

I don’t mean that it’s going to give your bank details to Jeff Bezos, because let’s face it, he’s already got those. I mean a Trojan horse in that it’s going to have access to every Kindle Fire‘s entire web usage, enabling it to build the kind of data picture that makes Phorm, Google search history or Facebook’s Beacon look like very small potatoes indeed.

Here’s how it works: part of the browser lives in the cloud, and when you click a link or enter a URL Amazon will “take into account things like network conditions, page complexity and the location of any cached content.” That’s good for you, because it could speed up your browsing, and it’s good for Amazon, because Amazon gets to store details of every single thing you do online.

Maybe Jeff Bezos forgot to mention that bit.

Why worry?

As Apple employee number 8, Chris Espinosa has forgotten more about tech than most of us will ever know – so if he’s worried about Silk, we should be too. As he writes on his Posterous blog, “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.”

According to Espinosa, “Amazon now has what every storefront lusts for: the knowledge of what other stores your customers are shopping and what prices they’re being offered there… 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 behaviour in existence.”

The security bods at Sophos aren’t impressed either: they’ve been poring through the Silk privacy policy and they don’t like what they see. The T&Cs note that “URLs, IP addresses and MAC addresses will be logged and can be retained for 30 days”, and the FAQ appears to suggest that your secure HTTP traffic will be intercepted too. There is an off-cloud mode, but you can bet that won’t be particularly prominent.

Never mind “people who bought this book also bought”: what Amazon’s working on here is a “people with your symptoms also bought”, “people with your perilous financial history also bought”, “people with your balloon fetish also bought” engine. It’s not storing your individual data, but as Don Park comments on Espinosa’s post, “they don’t have to know who you are, just what you are”. If the data wasn’t valuable, Amazon wouldn’t be trying to get it.

I can’t help thinking that Amazon, and Facebook, and Google, and all the other big players are giving us the privacy equivalent of boiling a frog, the (mythical, apparently) technique of slowly increasing the heat so that the frog doesn’t realise it’s being cooked until it’s far too late. Last week Facebook had its hand on the gas; this week, it’s Amazon. Who’s next?

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