Sunday, July 15, 2012


Amazon is looking over your shoulder while you use your Kindle—and taking detailed notes

Nearly 18,000 Kindle readers have highlighted the same line from the second book in the series [Suzanne Collins's "Hunger Games" trilogy]: ‘Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them.’

by Larry Geller

The pull-quote above is from Your E-Book Is Reading You (Wall Street Journal, 6/29/2012). I’ll admit to finding it very frightening. Indeed, something is happening to people and perhaps they are not dealing with it.

More from the WSJ article:

The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.

I find this kind of spying frightening. Keep in mind that whatever data Amazon, Apple, Google and Barnes & Noble gather on a person can be available to law enforcement. As readers of alternative media know, government officials seem to be able to get hold of detailed information on us without warrants or court intervention. They’ve long been after our library borrowing records. Now they can find out what sections of what ebooks we spend time perusing. Right down to the sentence, in fact.

A note to Nook users: the WSJ reveals that your detailed reading habits are already being shared with publishers. Barnes & Noble is supposedly sharing only data on groups of readers, but admits that they already have "more data than we can use."

Don’t worry, they’ll find a way to use it.

When you highlight a passage by pushing that button on the Kindle, Amazon knows about it. Is that ok with you? The data is already being shared on their website.

What about readers who choose to select books on sensitive subjects. Could merely reading a page in a book on sexuality figure in a police investigation of a sexual assault in your neighborhood? Would the FBI single out for scrutiny anyone who spent time reading particularly violent passages in crime novels, for example?

While organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation are seeking to prevent data from being turned over to law enforcement agencies, a better approach would be to not let these companies have the information in the first place.

I had thought it would be nice to have an iPad (I’m one of the few holdouts I suppose) to be able to read ebooks while waiting to testify at the Legislature, for example. Instead, I think I’ll stick to my aging HP tablet, which I’m pretty certain doesn’t have the smarts to send details of my life to Amazon.


Iʻm of two minds on this. Of course, the potential abuse of civil rights and privacy is horrifying. On the other hand, a proper algorithm would allow Amazon (or whomever) to use the information to suggest other relevant titles as I complete the book, or sections of the book. And Iʻd like to see the stats on the number of people who start books and donʻt finish them; how far in they get before abandoning; how many people buy books without even cracking them, etc.

The future seems to have us living more and more in public (and I donʻt mean camping in the park although thatʻs a completely separate issue) and maybe we should be okay with that. But youʻre right, I donʻt want some creepy police state hoarding the info to use against the people for their own benefit.

And related but mentioned here as more of a by the way, the "popular highlights" issue I wrote about in my review of the Kindle iPad version of "The Shallows" seems no longer to be a feature.

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