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Can you trust Amazon's WorkMail?

Evan Schuman | Feb. 4, 2015
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." 


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