Feeds

Amazon's Silk looks creepily Phorm-ulaic

Data-hoarding by proxy

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

Analysis A trick question for you...

What's the difference between Phorm's controversial WebWise system, and the kind of giant web proxy unveiled by Amazon yesterday? Technically, there isn't one. WebWise and Silk are doing exactly the same thing. Both intercept private web traffic – and massage it. Both also aggregate enormous amounts of private data and make behavioural inferences from this data hoard.

There are other differences, of course.

Phorm caused a furore because of the implementation policy. BT didn't inform its users they were guinea pigs in the Phorm trials – and planned to opt its users into the system.

Perhaps we have exceedingly short memories these days.

For 18 months, Phorm was the biggest UK technology story – and the bitter experience of the consumer backlash is branded into ISPs' memories. They'll be wondering this morning how on earth Amazon can get away with something so similar.

Privacy is like boiling the proverbial frog. We get accustomed to giving more personal information away, without objecting. But if the data aggregators turn up the heat a little too quickly, people notice. Phorm's stealth interception was brazen: a step too far for many users, as was Facebook's Beacon, Google's Buzz... it's a grim and growing list, is it not? But remarkably Gmail has continued to grow, despite reading your private exchanges and opening them for advertisements.

Amazon Silk has the potential to make WebWise look like a tiff in a teacup. As Sophos' Chester Wisniewski points out, the Silk privacy policy is complex and contradictory. It's far from clear whether a Silk user's HTTPS traffic is also intercepted, something Phorm declined to do. The device's MAC addresses will be discarded, along with other identifying information, after 30 days. That strikes me as a moot point: Amazon already knows who you are. After 30 days, Amazon will have all the behavioural data it needs.

"If you buy a Fire device, think carefully as to whether your privacy is worth trading for a few milliseconds faster web surfing experience," suggests Wisniewski.

Opera has such a system, an enormous one, that's growing faster than Google, that it calls (more honestly, I think) a "transaction cache".

Last year I quizzed them about how they planned to exploit it for behavioural information. Opera executives were quite clear: they weren't. And they don't need to. The Opera business strategy is a novel idea of performing arbitrage against competing ad networks, rather than data-mining the data itself for behavioural inferences. What makes Silk even creepier than Phorm, to me, is that it's already making those inferences – it anticipates the next page you'll visit by prefetching it. This makes the Kindle a data-collection tool for those "Customers who bought X also bought Y" nudges.

Amazon, like Phorm, is betting that you don't care enough about privacy to shop elsewhere. And from the gradual privacy ratchet, and the certain absence of opposition from rivals – nobody wants to poison the well – it may well succeed. ®

Top three mobile application threats

More from The Register

next story
Stick a 4K in them: Super high-res TVs are DONE
4,000 pixels is niche now... Don't say we didn't warn you
BBC goes offline in MASSIVE COCKUP: Stephen Fry partly muzzled
Auntie tight-lipped as major outage rolls on
Philip K Dick 'Nazi alternate reality' story to be made into TV series
Amazon Studios, Ridley Scott firm to produce The Man in the High Castle
iPad? More like iFAD: We reveal why Apple fell into IBM's arms
But never fear fanbois, you're still lapping up iPhones, Macs
Bose says today is F*** With Dre Day: Beats sued in patent battle
Music gear giant seeks some of that sweet, sweet Apple pie
There's NOTHING on TV in Europe – American video DOMINATES
Even France's mega subsidies don't stop US content onslaught
You! Pirate! Stop pirating, or we shall admonish you politely. Repeatedly, if necessary
And we shall go about telling people you smell. No, not really
Too many IT conferences to cover? MICROSOFT to the RESCUE!
Yet more word of cuts emerges from Redmond
Joe Average isn't worth $10 a year to Mark Zuckerberg
The Social Network deflates the PC resurgence with mobile-only usage prediction
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.