Your Data May Be at Risk If You Use an Amazon Fire Tablet

Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., unveils the Fire Phone during an event at Fremont Studios in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., unveils the Fire Phone during an event at Fremont Studios in Seattle, Washington, U.S., on Wednesday, June 18, 2014.  Mike Kane / Bloomberg / Getty Images

This past week Amazon became snagged in a nasty public relations snafu. As the tech world lined up in support of Apple in its battle with the FBI over privacy and encryption, Amazon confirmed it had actually removed consumers' ability to encrypt data on its line of Fire tablets in the latest OS release last fall.

Making matters worse, Amazon was among the companies that denounced the government's plans and defended the right of consumers and companies to use data encryption. (In a statement, the company didn't explain its motives other than to say most users didn't bother using encryption anyway.) Legal issues and politics aside, this whole hubbub leaves thousands, if not millions, of Amazon tablet owners with one burning question: Where the hell does this leave me? 

The quick answer: in limbo. The longer answer is that it depends on your device and which version of the OS you're running. If you own a non-Fire device, such as a Kindle e-reader (Kindle, Kindle for Kids, Kindle Voyage), you aren't the focus of this issue — keep on reading. If you own a Fire OS device, which includes the Fire Phone and Fire line of tablets, then you have some choices to make. This weekend, in the flood of bad press, Amazon said that at some point this spring a software update will re-enable encryption on Fire devices. This is good news, but doesn't do anything for those who updated to the current OS already. 

The gist is that, while Amazon does use some forms of encryption for services that rely on the cloud, all the data you store on your device itself is not encrypted. Functionally that means that should your tablet fall into the wrong hands, a savvy thief could access any data you have stored on there. That could mean your emails and messages and texts, your documents, your photos, your contacts, and your browsing history.

If you haven't already updated the OS on your Fire device to version 5.0 since last fall, for whatever reason, then you could opt to simply continue on, enable encryption, and wait for the next update to appear that should supersede the current one. This has a few risks, as you don't know how long that will be, or if other security holes exist that were patched by the last update. But so long as you are using a quality password to unlock your device, you're likely fine. 

If you have updated to Fire OS 5.0 already, then you should enable a strong password to unlock your device. An even stronger, possibly more paranoid step would be to do a factory reset, establish a new password, and then hold off from loading up email, social media, documents, photos, and other personal info until the next OS update arrives. That's probably extreme for many folks, but it's the most secure option, short of abandoning your device altogether.