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Why did Amazon remove encryption from Fire devices?

The newest update to Amazon’s Fire operating system removes the option for users to encrypt their open files. The decision is one based on customer preference, according to the e-commerce company, but critics fear it will set a bad precedent. 

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    Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks on stage for the launch of the new Amazon Fire Phone, June 18, 2014. Amazon has recently taken encryption off of their Amazon fire OS.
    Ted S. Warren/AP
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Device encryption is no longer an option for users who updated to Amazon Fire’s newest operating system.

Fire OS 5 “Bellini,” introduced last fall, has removed the ability to encrypt local files on Amazon devices. The shift means that any future data stored on devices will be more vulnerable to hacking if the devices fall into the wrong hands. The update also affects information that was previously encrypted in older versions of the OS.

News of the change arrived as encryption technology becomes an increasingly contentious topic. A high-profile legal battle between Apple Inc. and federal law enforcement officials over an encrypted device owned by a terrorism suspect is currently underway.

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But Amazon’s decision to discontinue encryption features may have had less to do with the company’s feelings toward the process and more to do with how customers were using their product.

“In the fall when we released Fire OS 5, we removed some enterprise features that we found customers weren’t using," an Amazon spokesperson told The Christian Science Monitor. ”All Fire tablets’ communication with Amazon’s cloud meet our high standards for privacy and security including appropriate use of encryption.”

Device encryption, according to Amazon, was one of the features that was not widely used by consumers.

Previously, if a user’s encrypted phone was obtained by someone else, all files stored on the phone would be unreadable – including texts, photos, emails, passwords, and any sensitive information like credit card numbers.

But if no one was using the feature, is there harm in cutting it?

Some critics are against removing security features just because they aren’t popular – using complex passwords and differing passwords for each account add more steps for users, but are still pushed by the technology industry because they are seen as necessary security measures.

It’s possible Amazon made the decision based on performance reviews. Android reported performance problems, especially in cheaper model phones, when its team tried to make encryption default on the Android 5.0 Lollipop OS, which is similar to Fire OS 5, according to The Verge.

Android 5.0 Lollipop was able to offer encryption as an optional feature on its devices. Users could turn it on and decide for themselves if the added security warranted the performance hit. With Fire OS 5 devices, that option is not available.

In general, there seem to be few options for Fire device users who still want encryption.

“They can refuse to update (but that presents its own security patching issues and could later become mandatory); they can upgrade and hope for the best; or they can stop using their Fire devices — none of which seem ideal,” The Verge’s Ashley Carman writes.

Amazon devices that do not use the Fire OS will not be impacted by the recent change to encryption. The company has stated in the past that products like Amazon Echo, which uses microphones to respond to voice commands, are highly encrypted. 

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