Friday, December 17, 2010

E-Readers: The New Big Brother

I'd never even heard of the EFF before yesterday. But on the morning edition of "All Things Considered," NPR's Martin Kaste opened my eyes to a recent report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and an e-reader ability I had not yet heard: the devices can--and do--track user reading habits:

E-books are quickly going mainstream: They represent nearly one out of 10 trade books sold.

It's easy to imagine a near future in which paper books are the exception, not the norm. But are book lovers ready to have their reading tracked?

Most e-readers, like Amazon's Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.

"They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page," says Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out."

Checking Someone's Alibi, Tracking A Device

Cohn says this kind of page-view tracking may seem innocuous, but if the company keeps the data long-term, the information could be subpoenaed to check someone's alibi, or as evidence in a lawsuit.

And it's not just what pages you read; it may also monitor where you read them. Kindles, iPads and other e-readers have geo-location abilities; using GPS or data from Wi-Fi and cell phone towers, it wouldn't be difficult for the devices to track their own locations in the physical world.

But it's hard to find out what kind of data the e-readers are sending. Most e-book companies refer all questions about this to their posted privacy policies. The policies can be hard to interpret, so Cohn and the EFF created a side-by-side comparison. It's just been updated to include Apple's iPad.

See the entire piece or listen to it HERE

I already knew, of course, that Google, Amazon, and pretty much every online search engine or online retailer tracks our activity in order to give us the most relevant information for each individual. But I had no idea that some e-readers were able to gather so much additional information on users. Something about that fact feels very, very wrong to me. Intriguing, I'll admit, but wrong.

ReadWriteWeb tells us more:

Since WikiLeaks released 250,000 secret U.S. government cables a little over a week ago, the world is suddenly terribly concerned about what we may or may not be reading. Some countries - and some U.S. government agencies - are blocking their people from accessing the Wikileaks site, for fear of reading.

So the EFF's E-Book Buyer's Guide to E-Book Privacy comes at a good time - not just for holiday shopping, but for those of us that want to read that other famous trove of classified materials, The Pentagon Papers (or, okay, perhaps read other things too) with some assurance of privacy.

EFF's guide provides a review of the privacy policies of various e-book providers - both hardware and software makers - from the Amazon Kindle, to Google Books, to the Internet Archive. The report is based on what the policies say themselves, not on how they're enforced in practice.


The data that many of these e-readers gather does help them deliver a better experience in a lot of ways. iBooks needs to track the last page you've read, for example, if you expect it to be able to sync across devices. Amazon tracks what you search and purchase in order to make suggestions for items you might like.

But one's reading habits, perhaps because reading has been such a private endeavor, have typically been closely guarded. We may want to disguise the fact we never finished Ulysses (I confess). We may want to disguise having read all the Twilight novels - twice - (I haven't, I swear) or having a penchant for really low brow science fiction (no comment). And of course, we may want to read books that are politically unpopular.

Read the entire article HERE

Not only do these revelations surprise me (they probably shouldn't at this point, but they do!), but the timing is quite ironic as well. I've actually been thinking lately about trying out my e-reader for some actual book-reading, instead of just word document viewing--editing and reading friends' manuscripts for feedback. But this privacy breach is making me think twice. So much of what we do is already being watching and recorded by "Big Brother" types that extending their reach into reading--something I consider a very personal and private endeavor--disturbs me to my core.

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