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Amazon Silk Web browser given green light by EFF

Amazon's Kindle Fire is off the hook with one important group when it comes to privacy worries about Silk, the specially created Web browser for the new e-reader/tablet due out next month.

Representatives from the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation have talked with Amazon officials about the speedy, new cloud-based browser, focusing on what user information will be transmitted via the cloud and shared by the company.

"Our conversation with Amazon allayed many of our major concerns," said the EFF.

As msnbc.com's Wilson Rothman explained when Kindle Fire was announced, Silk "weds the tablet to Amazon's cloud network. The browser gathers user behavior in order to predict where you'll go next, and caching that Web page in advance. If you always jump from msnbc.com to the tech/sci page, it will start loading it on the back end, so that it's quicker to load for you."

The EFF, in a statement, said, in part:

After all, while in cloud acceleration mode, the user is trusting Amazon with an incredible amount of information. This is because Amazon is sitting in the middle of most communications between a user's Fire tablet on the one hand, and the website she chooses to visit on the other. This puts Amazon in a position to track a user's browsing habits and possibly sensitive content. As there were a lot of questions that the Silk announcement left unresolved, we decided to follow up with Amazon to learn more about the privacy implications.

... Cloud acceleration mode is the default setting, but Amazon has assured us it will be easy to turn off on the first page of the browser settings menu. When turned off, Silk operates as a normal web browser, sending the requests directly to the web sites you are visiting.

Also, Amazon, the EFF says, "does not intercept encrypted traffic, so your communications over HTTPS would not be accelerated or tracked."

"Though we are happy about some of the ways the (Silk) browser protects the end user's privacy, a couple of serious privacy concerns remain," the EFF said.

"First of all, Amazon stores URLs (website addresses) you visit, and these sometimes contain identifying information. To pick a prominent example, there is an opportunity to identify people through their search history with some degree of accuracy. Indeed, given the common practice employed by search engines of putting query terms in the URL as parameters, Amazon will effectively have a database of user search histories across many different search engines."

Also, "the data collected by Amazon provides a ripe source of users' collective browsing habits, which could be an attractive target for law enforcement. For users who are worried about these privacy issues and about putting a lot of trust in Amazon to keep their data safe, we recommend turning off cloud acceleration."

The EFF is not the only group that is raising privacy issues.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass), a co-chairman of Congress's Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, recently sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking similar questions about Silk as the Electronic Frontier Foundation did. Markey set a deadline of Nov. 4 for Bezos to reply.

The EFF said it is good that with Silk, "the end user has control over whether to use cloud acceleration. But this new technology highlights the need for better online privacy protections. As companies continue to innovate in ways that make novel uses of — and expose much more personal data to — the Internet cloud, it's critical that the legal protections for that data keep up with changes technology."

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