The recent Wall Street Journal article on “The Summer’s Most Unread Books” attracted a little comment in passing on how easy it is for Amazon to probe deep into people’s personal reading habits. Courtesy of the Kindle “Popular Highlights” feature, WSJ‘s Jordan Ellenberg could parse the preferences and persistence of the readers of some of this summer’s most popular titles, right there in public view.
Leaving aside the value of this technique as an index of intellectual posturing, this is a good reminder of just how much of your information, as well as your ownership rights, you’re giving away through the Amazon distribution model. It’s also a salutary reminder of how much power Amazon now has in terms of sales metrics and the ability to crunch data. We’ve already had the Orwellian scandal of Amazon deleting copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and other “mistakenly published” titles from readers’ Kindles by remote control. It’s worth remembering that they can also probe deep into our personal lives. And yes, we partly have publishers’ insistence on tethering and draconican DRM to thank for this problem – but Amazon has been gung ho in applying it.
I recommend that anyone who wants to avoid exposure to this feature spend more time sideloading content into their Kindle, and even homebrewing their own Mobi files from public domain material. This may not get around the problem every time, but at least it’ll mostly keep you off Amazon’s radar – which may be just where you want to be.
Because there are all kinds of reasons why Amazon data might be very attractive in ways that could damage you. For one thing, there’s taxation issues. The attempt by North Carolina to extract Amazon sales data for tax purposes was luckily forestalled, but that may not happen every time. For another, we have the NSA and British intelligence services diving deep into app data on the likes of Angry Birds. You wanna take a bet on against them doing the same with Amazon book sales information? Buyers or browsers of certain sensitive titles? I look forward to seeing the color of your money.
I can see other implications of this too. Remember the moral panic in the UK press about extreme porn sold via digital bookstores? Well, suppose Amazon highlights and sales data around certain extreme titles get shared, or hacked? Blackmail is just one of the possibilities.
Just keep all that in mind next time you innocently highlight a passage in your Kindle. If the NSA knew, would you feel at ease? Well, thanks to Amazon, maybe they already do.