Can You Trust Amazon’s WorkMail?

The company is being coy about what it can do with your enterprise’s email if you sign up for its cloud-based service

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When Amazon unveiled its cloud-based corporate WorkMail email offering last week (Jan. 28), it stressed the high-level of encryption it would use and the fact that corporate users would control their own decryption keys. But Amazon neglected to mention that it will retain full access to those messages — along with the ability to both analyze data for e-commerce marketing and to give data to law enforcement should subpoenas show up. 

That, at least, is what I am able to glean by looking at the company’s privacy policy. Unfortunately, when I asked Amazon if I was interpreting the policy correctly, Amazon’s spokesperson wasn’t very helpful.

Here’s how things stack up. When I asked Amazon for a copy of its WorkMail privacy policy, I was told that the company would use the existing Amazon Web Services privacy policy, which pretty much permits Amazon to do anything it wants. Given that an enterprise’s email data likely includes just about every kind of sensitive and proprietary information the company has, any enterprise looking for a vendor to host its email is likely to put access control near the top of its list of must-haves. 

It’s not as though vendor access is necessary. Other companies have forgone it. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder lashed out last year against both Apple and Google because their iPhone and Android phones do not give the vendors access, making subpoenas against them pointless. And, as retail analyst Ken Odeluga notes, Microsoft has offered some Exchange email corporate customers both options, with one version allowing for Microsoft to analyze the data and a higher-priced version that doesn’t. 

“The big data potential is an unavoidable consideration and a tempting proposition for Amazon,” Odeluga told me. “The solution to the conundrum will almost certainly be a two-tiered offering for enterprises. One service will not have implicit guarantees that data will not be accessed for anonymized cross-reference and analysis, but another class of service likely will. If Amazon does not provide guaranteed ‎inaccessibility, even by itself, it will not be competitive with Microsoft, which does offer this to enterprises.” 

Amazon danced around the subject of what it can and cannot access through WorkMail, but repeatedly refused to answer whether it can access all content. However, when I asked an Amazon spokesperson whether Amazon would be able to deliver the contents in response to a government subpoena — something that it couldn’t do if it didn’t have access — I got this emailed response: “We will not disclose customer content unless required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order, such as a subpoena or a court order. We carefully examine each request to authenticate its accuracy and verify that it complies with applicable law. We will challenge requests that are overbroad, exceed the requestor’s authority or do not fully comply with applicable law. If we are compelled to disclose customer content, we notify customers before disclosure to provide them with the opportunity to seek protection from disclosure, unless prohibited by law.” 

Not to belabor the obvious, but if Amazon can hand over your emails to law enforcement, then it has access to your email. When I pointed this out, the spokesperson said he would get back to me. That was four days ago (two working days), and I’m still waiting.

As for that privacy policy that Amazon says will cover WorkMail — the full text can be found here — this line offers very little comfort for IT: “Information gathered by AWS may be correlated with any personally identifiable information that Amazon.com has and used by AWS and Amazon.com to improve the services we offer.” And it also refers people to an even broader Amazon policy, which also offers no comfort to the privacy- and security-concerned. 

Privacy policies are supposed to assure customers what the vendor won’t do — or at least what the vendor is willing to promise that it won’t do — but more often than not they fall short of that. To get companies comfortable with the idea of Amazon controlling their email, Amazon, which has made an art of turning data analytics into actionable information, needs to say as clearly as possible that it will not now or at anytime in the future look at those companies’ messages or have software do any analysis of them at all. Even counting up the number of times specific words are used would be banned.  

But from what I was able to gather from my discussions with Amazon’s people, the company is trying to get the best of both worlds. It wants to assure potential customers that their data won’t be accessible by itself or law enforcement, but it wants to leave the door ajar so that it can turn around and access those emails — while being able to say, “We never said we didn’t have access.”

Amazon’s WorkMail offering is still in beta-testing so there is still a chance for Amazon to change the rules before it completes its rollout. I hope it does. However, since Amazon is now publicly inviting companies to join the testing, these appear to be the rules of that trial. 

The cleverness of what Apple and Google have done is to avoid temptation, not to mention getting themselves out from between law enforcement and their customers. If the data resides in a vendor’s server farm and can be accessed by its employees, sooner or later, someone will contrive a legitimate-sounding reason to run some analytics. One query begets more queries. 

The reasons why e-commerce company extraordinaire Amazon wants to get into email messages are few. But its silence on its plans for that data sends a very loud message on its own.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.

This story, "Can You Trust Amazon’s WorkMail?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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