The new web browser designed by Amazon for its Kindle Fire tablet has sparked concerns that the firm will be able to track users’ every move online by acting as a middleman between them and the web.
The new browser, Amazon Silk, uses the firm’s network of giant data centres to pre-load web pages before they are delivered to the device.
According to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, this “split browser” approach will offer “ultra-fast” mobile web access. It will reduce the computation required from the Kindle Fire’s processor, which is lower performance than that of Apple’s iPad 2.
But it also means that Amazon’s systems will keep a record of every single web page that Kindle Fire users visit, which could be used to profile their interests for advertising and other commercial purposes. The records will also be subject to data requests from police and intelligence agencies, as the relatively limited data held by broadband providers.
The browser will even aim to predict your next move in its effort to shave milliseconds off loading times, by learning how users tend to browse individual websites.
“All of your web surfing habits will transit Amazon’s cloud,” said Chester Wisniewski, of the British computer security firm Sophos.
“If you think that Google AdWords and Facebook are watching you, this service is guaranteed to have a record of everything you do on the web.”
Amazon’s approach is similar to that of Opera Mini, a mobile browser available on Android, iOS, Symbian and Windows Mobile smartphones. Its Norwegian developer, Opera, also pre-loads and compresses web pages to speed up browsing and cut the amount of 3G bandwidth that smartphones consume.
Unlike Amazon, however, Opera has undertaken not to keep records of the web pages Opera Mini users access or profile their individual browsing habits.
“The system brings with it a need to reassure people that their privacy is being protected,” said Pål Unanue-Zahl, Opera’s communication manager.
The terms and conditions announced for Amazon Silk provide no such reassurance.
“We generally do not keep this information for longer than 30 days,” the Amazon Silk terms and conditions say.
The new browser will also pose a challenge to website owners, including some of Amazon’s major rivals. When a user directly accesses a website from a normal browser, the website typically logs their IP address. These unique numbers are used by firms to track where their visitors come from, and for other commercially-useful traffic analyses.
But when a Kindle Fire user accesses a website, all the website will be able to log is an IP address for one of Amazon’s network of giant data centres. The users’ IP address will go no further than the dominant online retailer. Given the rapid growth in mobile browsing, and Mr Bezos’ plan to sell “many millions” of Kindle Fires this year alone, rivals such as Google, whose advertising business relies heavily on being able to target individuals, will miss out on valuable data.
For Kindle Fire owners who do not want Amazon to act as a middleman between the web, it will be possible to turn off Amazon Silk’s pre-loading function.
“If you buy a Fire device, think carefully as to whether your privacy is worth trading for a few milliseconds faster web surfing experience,” said Mr Wisniewski.