Encryption technology has become an increasingly important feature for consumers in the wake of recent NSA paying revelations. People have only become more conscious of its value as the FBI and Apple continue their legal battle over an encrypted iPhone. Amazon has come out in favor of strong encryption, but at the same time, an update to its Kindle Fire devices has removed the option to encrypt the internal storage.
Amazon’s Fire devices are based on Android, but not the same flavor of Android that you’d find on most devices. Amazon uses a fork of Android from the Android Open Source Project. It doesn’t work with Google to certify its devices and integrate Google Play Services or apps like Gmail and Maps. Instead, Amazon runs its own (smaller) app store and plugs in content like Kindle Books, Audible, and Amazon Music.
Android has had support for encryption at its core ever since Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread. That was released way back in 2011, and has been improved over the years as subsequent versions of Android have been released. Amazon supported encryption in Fire OS all the way up to v5.0 (based on Android 5.1), which started to roll out pre-installed on fifth generation Fire tablets a few months ago. We’ve confirmed that Amazon has indeed removed this feature from the OS, but why have people suddenly noticed? In addition to those new tablets shipping with Fire OS, the company has recently started pushing updates to fourth generation Fire tablets. If you had your tablet encrypted on Fire OS 4, the updater will make you decrypt before installing.
Many have jumped to the conclusion that Amazon is trying to get on the government’s good side by removing the option to encrypt its tablets. Indeed, the timing of these updates is unfortunate. Just when the FBI starts pressuring firms to create encryption workarounds, Amazon is forcing people to decrypt their tablets to update. But again, Fire OS 5 first shipped on new tablets months ago, so the decision to drop encryption was not a direct result of the current fight.
Having a non-encrypted tablet means the data stored on it could be copied without the owner’s consent. It also prevents some managed Exchange accounts from working. We’ve reached out to Amazon for clarification on why encryption was removed, and the company says consumers simply weren’t using encryption. Okay, but why risk the bad press for removing it? If I were to speculate (Amazon won’t speak further about it), Fire tablets are mainly content-consumption devices — most owners aren’t keeping a lot of personal data on them. Additionally, the recent Fire devices are running low-power MediaTek ARM chips. Without dedicated hardware support, there’s a performance impact from full-disk encryption. Amazon might have been fielding a lot of support complaints from users with laggy encrypted tablets.
Amazon’s decision to pull encryption is certainly an annoyance, especially on devices that previously supported it. However, it’s probably not being done at the behest of a shadowy government conspiracy.