Amazon flip-flops, will protect user data on Fire tablets after all

The e-commerce giant had nixed encryption on the slates, a move cybersecurity experts panned. Now it says it'll bring the technology back.

Ian Sherr
Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
2 min read

At one point, Amazon was in the odd position of being both a champion of users' privacy and an enemy of it.

Josh Miller/CNET

Amazon has had a change of heart.

In the past 48 hours, the Seattle-based Internet retailer has announced a new slate of Echo voice-controlled products, joined an amicus brief supporting Apple in a privacy fight with the FBI, said it removed encryption technology from its Fire OS software powering its tablets and then, late on Friday, promised to add it back.

If the last two items on the list caused you to do a double take, you're not alone.

Though most tech companies have spent the past couple of years strengthening data privacy technology for their Internet services and devices, Amazon appeared to have moved to actually weaken it when the company removed an option for Kindle Fire tablet owners to encrypt the data on their devices, jumbling up the information using an algorithm. When news spread that Amazon was disabling this technology in the latest update for its software powering these tablets, the company said it was doing so because not enough customers were using it.

Watch this: Seriously, Amazon? Fire tablets drop encryption, are less secure

The announcement landed with a thud around Silicon Valley, which spent the last week lining up behind Apple in a showdown with the US government over customers' privacy. At the heart of the debate was whether the company should be forced, by a court order, to help the FBI hack into an encrypted iPhone used by one of the terrorists in the San Bernardino, California, attack. Apple argues that the government's requests are unconstitutional; the FBI has said accessing the phone is a matter of national security.

Even Amazon, which appeared to weaken its customers' security with its update for the Fire mobile software, joined tech giants such as Facebook, Microsoft, Cisco and Yahoo in a Thursday court filing to support Apple's case against the government.

Cybersecurity experts said Amazon's choice to remove encryption flew in the face of security fundamentals.

Late Friday evening, Amazon reversed course.

"We will return the option for full disk encryption with a Fire OS update coming this spring," a company spokeswoman said in a statement.

Well, better late than never.