Amazon Fires a Silk Proxy In The Cloud

Sept. 29, 2011
Amazon's latest Fire comes with the Silk browser that has an option to use the cloud as a giant web cache. Is that good or bad?
Amazon wants to give its new Kindle Fire a boost via the cloud. In particular, the Fire comes with Amazon's Silk browser (see Amazon’s New Kindle Fire Tablet Takes to the Cloud) It has a number of features including a caching system that employs a server that runs on, not surprisingly, Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).

Some might be confused about the cloud in general and assume that EC2 has somehow turned into a web caching system. That is not the case. It is a server-based application that Amazon wrote and it runs on EC2. When this feature is enabled on Silk, a web page URL is sent to the cloud service that accesses the desired website, renders it and sends the information to the browser. In theory, this speeds things up. Reduces the amount of data sent to the browser and could reduce the load on the web site. Good for everyone. Right?

Silk is not the first browser to take this approach and proxy caching is used in many applications, not just web browsing. Opera's mini Opera is just one example of a browser targeted at smartphones that can perform this magic. Proxy caching is often employed when the client is underpowered. However, the Amazon Fire runs a dual core Cortex-A9. Definitely capable to rendering any page currently on the web with minimal overhead and delay.

Still, the approach could be more useful for e-Readers like the new Amazon Kindle Touch or Barnes and Nobel's nook that have processors designed for displaying static ebook pages. I would find that handy on the original Amazon Kindle that I have. It has a beta web browser that is marginal at best. A service like Silk's cloud proxy would be useful because it could render a page for better layout on the smaller screen.

Space is also a reason given for using this feature in Silk. The logic is a tablet has more limited space and the cloud is essentially unlimited. This tends to be a discussion of relativity because tablets like the Fire are substantially more powerful than many laptops of yesteryear that are still in use. Having a microSD slot makes more of a difference and brings storage locally for more other uses as well.

So why does Amazon want users to take advantage of the cloud? From The Prisoner, "We want information." To which Number Six responds ",You won't get it!" "By hook or by crook, we will..."

This is actually not any different that what Google gets from its search engine. Information about what you look at is valuable. Companies like Amazon often have to pay for information like this. Now they can use and sell that information about you.

Giving away information in return for possibly faster performance might be a reasonable tradeoff for many but those are not the only concerns. Security and privacy issues are likely to be more important than how fast a web page renders. Anyone that knows how a proxy server works knows that its security and reliablity is key to security and reliability of the clients. By default, use of a secure link like HTTPS/SSL occurs between a website and the proxy. There can be a secure link between the proxy and the client as well. Compromise the proxy and you have a man-in-the-middle attack.

Privacy issues are related to the capture of information as already noted. This user information needs to be stored. Compromise the proxy and access to this information as possibility. Because user IDs and passwords pass through the proxy it is possible that these could be compromised. I am sure Amazon is implementing the best security money can buy but we are already familiar with the almost daily highlight of a compromised system. The problem here is that so much information is consolidated making it a juicy target.

This information is not just a target for those nefarious people looking to make an illegal buck. The U.S. Patriot Act can provide the government with access to the details. This could potentially bypass laws for some users such as those found in Europe if a U.S. cloud-based platform is used to cache data. At this point, all the Amazon Fire's will be targeting an Amazon server that is based, guess where.

Don't think that I'm the only one with concerns about Silk. Check out Amazon’s Kindle Fire Silk browser has serious security concerns and Silk a Possible Fireball.

On the plus side, this is an option on Silk that does not have to be used. Likewise, it is not the only browser that will be found on Fire. The bigger question will be if this "feature" is a trend. So keep in mind, free does not necessarily mean there is no cost.

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