Updated: Kindle Fire Privacy Concerns–Is ‘Big Browser’ Watching You?

George Orwell 1984

Fearing that Kindle Fire users who buy an e-book version of 1984 may not realize that they, too, are being watched, congressman Edward J. Markey (D-MA) has written a letter to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos questioning the user data that the Kindle Fire collects. (Updated: I’ve updated the post below with a response from Amazon.)

Rep. Markey is concerned that the Kindle Fire’s Web browser, Silk, which is built into the tablet, will collect too much data about the products users buy and how much they pay. “Consumers may buy the new Kindle Fire to read ‘1984’, but they may not realize that the tablet’s ‘Big Browser’ may watching their every keystroke when they are online,”writes Markey, who represents the 7th District of Massachusetts and is co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus.

“As the use of mobile devices, especially tablets, becomes ubiquitous, we must ensure that user privacy is protected and proper safeguards are in place so that consumers know if and when their personal information is being used and for what purpose. I look forward to hearing more from Amazon in response to these questions.”

Update: The Silk browser is a “split browser,” meaning that it resides on both the Kindle Fire and on the Amazon cloud. This allows the browser to be faster, but what Rep. Markey is concerned about is the browsing data that is sent to the cloud. An Amazon spokeswoman told me, “Users can completely turn off the split-browsing mode and use Amazon Silk like a conventional Web browser.”

Here’s the PDF of Rep. Markey’s letter to Jeff Bezos (also here). The full text is on the next page.

Rep. Markey Letter to Jeff Bezos
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Full text of Rep. Edward Markey’s letter to Jeff Bezos

Edward J. Markey
7th District, Massachusetts
Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515-2107

October 14, 2011

Mr. Jeff Bezos
Chief Executive Officer
Amazon
1200 12th Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98144

Dear Mr. Bezos:

According to a recent report in The New York Times (“Amazon’s Foray into Browser Wars”, October 3, 2011), Amazon’s new tablet, the Kindle Fire, and the new browser Amazon developed for it, the Silk, “may give Amazon unique insight into the Web clicks, buying patterns and media habits of Fire users”. I am concerned that such a combination will enable Amazon to collect and utilize an extraordinary amount of information about its users’ Internet surfing and buying habits.

According to this media report, the Fire allows its users to visit websites on their personal devices. However, users of the Fire must also use Silk, the browser developed by Amazon, to visit those websites. By coupling the Fire with Silk, Amazon can essentially track each and every Web click of its customers. Amazon will know where people shop, what items they buy, when they buy them, and how much they pay.

Users’ Web traffic will be transmitted through Amazon’s servers and, therefore, The New York Times article points out “there are serious security and privacy implications to Silk”. Amazon’s plan has been called a “privatized merchant data-aggregation network” by one industry participant. As a co-Chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, I request Amazon’s responses to the questions that follow.

1. What information does Amazon plan to collect about users of the Kindle Fire?

2. How does Amazon intend to use this information? Does Amazon plan to sell, rent or otherwise make available this customer information to outside companies? If yes, to which firms?

3. How will Amazon convey its privacy policy to the Fire and Silk users? Please provide Amazon’s privacy policy covering the Kindle Fire, if available.

4. If Amazon plans to collect information about its users’ Internet browsing habits, will customers be able to affirmatively opt in to participate in the data sharing program?

Thank you for your attention to this important matter. Please provide responses to these questions no later than November 4, 2011. If you have any questions, please have a member of your staff contact Joseph Wender in my office (202-225-2836).

Sincerely,

Edward J. Markey
Co-Chairman
Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus

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