There was an interesting overview of reader privacy issues in this week’s Guardian. I wonder if most e-book readers have given any thought to the issue.

I bet it hasn’t even crossed their minds that the customer profile Amazon or Kobo or Sony might have on them—detailing what they’ve purchased, and when—would be valuable to someone.

And if they did see the value (I myself find Amazon’s recommendations engine both useful and surprisingly accurate), I wonder if it’s crossed their minds that this information could potentially be shared once Amazon has it.

As the article points out:

“Retailers and search engines, most notably Amazon and Google, can now gather an astonishingly detailed portrait of our book-reading habits: what we buy, what we browse, the amount of time we spend on a page and even the annotations we make in an ebook. As campaigners have quipped, it’s the equivalent of a bookshop hiring someone to follow you round the shop noting every book you pick up, then sitting at home with you while you read what you bought.”

The article outlines the actions several states are making to require police or governments to have a court order before they can get your reader profile. And that is a good first step. But I think it’s also worth noting that police and government professionals are going to need training in order to put this stuff into its proper context, the same way they’ve needed training for gangs, drugs and other social concerns which evolve and change over time.

It’s important, of course, to consider the case of Rizwaan Sabir, the man mentioned in the Guardian story: In 2008, as a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Nottingham, he was wrongly arrested and held for seven days after downloading the al-Qaeda training manual as research for his university work on counter-terrorism, and therefore clearly had a legitimate and non-criminal use for the material. (He was eventually given an apology from the police, along with £20,000 in compensation.) But it’s also worth noting that the rights given to me by Amazon and Kobo, for instance, allow me to download books for other people.

My mother and my boyfriend both have Kobo devices registered to my account, and when they want books, I buy them for them. Technically, I have broken no rules. I am allowed to register a certain number of devices, I have done so, and the fact that these devices are not for my use is immaterial. Invariably, the books they choose don’t interest me much anyway, and once I download them onto their respective devices, I never look at them again. But it’s my profile that those books are a part of. Are the police going to believe me if I ever have to defend that fact?

* * *

I remember one day when my Beloved was home sick, and passed the time by watching a boatload of Holocaust documentaries on Netflix. Our ‘Recommended for You’ screen has never been the same since. The ‘you’ that Netflix thinks it is recommending films to is actually a multi-person household. As yet, the Amazons and Kobos and Googles of the world currently have no way to differentiate that. I can’t keep a separate instant queue for me, for him, for the kids who sometimes visit us. As a result, Netflix thinks I want to watch Holocaust documentaries and Dora the Explorer, but I don’t.

It’s the same with my Kobo account: I couldn’t care less about memoirs written by famous comedians or Fifty Shades of Grey. I had no involvement with these books beyond paying for them for others’ use. So why should I be judged for having them, when they aren’t even really mine?

* * *

In some ways, the Internet is still a new frontier, and as such, our rights and obligations regarding our conduct on it are still in their infancy. A little bit of balance is required here. I do think we need better privacy options; the way Facebook rolls out changes and makes them the default—without asking you, unless you opt out after the fact—is horrifying. But we also need our online vendors to offer us more robust management options.

We need an e-book ecosystem with good parental controls, for instance, so we can buy content for our kids, and then later ’emancipate’ that content to them when they’re old enough to get their own accounts. We need a system where Amazon can share some information about you—if required by law—but without having to turn over your entire file. And we do need training for our law enforcement personnel on how the digital ecosystem works.

I’ll be curious to see how digital privacy policies evolve over time. And you should be, too.


  1. There are businesses now that search the web and use every thing a person ever purchased, posted and commented on to build a personality profile report. These are then sold to other companies and used to make hiring and promotion decisions.

    How comfortable are people to know that everything they have ever posted on Facebook and twitter and other social sites can be combined with all the purchases and comments they made on Amazon and other vendors along with comments on sites like this to construct a psychological analysis that could affect their future?

    That’s why I always post under a pseudonym. I don’t want my reading habits or my political views or the games I play to be used against me. And they could be. And this kind of thing is going to far worse unless our privacy rights are protected by law. But they won’t be because big business likes to be able to troll through people’s lives.

  2. That’s exactly right, Binko. It’s also important for us to keep in mind just how powerful so much big industries are. It’s generally those industries that employ armies of Capitol Hill lobbyists–which is to say, most of them–that tend to have the most influence on the lives of consumers.

    For me, at least, it’s so fascinating to watch as George Orwell’s police state predictions are slowly (but surely) coming true. I still remember reading 1984 for the first time as a high school student–a good four decades after the book was originally published. And yet even then, I never could have imagined a day when so many of us would be willfully sharing the most detailed and seemingly insignificant details about our purchases and our consumer preferences on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

  3. Xendula, I can answer that question in just three words: The Patriot Act. In fact, according to those who believe 9/11 was an inside job, the U.S. government either orchestrated 9/11 themselves, or knew of it beforehand and allowed it happen, solely as an excuse to sign the Patriot Act into law.

  4. Besides the various unconstitutional laws passed by our supine congress that allow Government to access our personal information you have to remember that big companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google see our profiles as nothing more than another revenue stream. They are happy to sell the info to other companies.

    Some of it downright spooky. Google targets ads to you based on the internal contents of your email. It’s an extremely short step from targeted ads to the FBI targeting you because of some random phrases you wrote to a buddy in what you thought was a private email.

  5. Did you read Rob Walker’s piece for the New York Times about the methods Target employs to create individually-specific direct mail ads for its customers? Now *that* was upsetting. (I can’t seem to find the link online, but if anyone else can, please share it here. I’m pretty sure the story ran sometime within the last six months or so.)

  6. I’d like to see the profile they’ve got of me. I’ve bought quite a few books from amazon as gifts for family and friends. They must have me down as a Manchester United/Manchester City supporting Rock Chick who’s into crime novels and cookery books.

  7. The irony of some of Amazon’s targeted advertising is that they frequently send me e-mails recommending books I already bought—from them. Also some recommendations are skewed because of my having purchased things for others. If a recommendation is on target for me, it is likely that I have already tagged it as a future purpose. For the most part, I just delete the e-mails without reading.

    One of the amusements of corresponding with someone who has a G-mail account is having them list for me the entertaining ads which show up as a result of our discussions.

  8. Although I’m always concerned about privacy, good luck trying to find a pattern in my Amazon account. Because of so many free and low cost ebooks, I have over 8,500 ebooks on my account and something like 2,000 on our family account (the one we use for our Kindle Fires). There are so many different genres and books, there is no pattern, except maybe history and fiction, heavy on romance and thrillers.

    As for tracking what I’m reading, where I’m at, and any notes, I don’t do social media. I also have my Kindle Keyboard WiFi turned off because if you have over 3,000 or so ebooks, it spontaneously restarts every time you sync. I now download all purchase to my PC, the copy over via USB. Saves lots of frustration waiting for the restart (sometimes more than once). Yes, that means I don’t get the “special offers” which, anymore, are just ads. So no one can track my reading habits, only my purchasing habits.

    The thing about a private company is that if you piss off your customers, you don’t keep them. Because of that pressure to tow the line, the government is a far greater concern. See the increasing number of drones used against US citizens for an example.

  9. I bought a children’s story for a nephew, and I’m still getting kid book recommendations from Amazon although he’s in high school now.

    I no longer buy from Amazon, but I do use it for market research on dozens of markets for my writing students and an occasional spell check on an author name spelling so my database must be seriously screwy. Good luck to Amazon figuring me out.

    Libraries and small brick and mortar bookstores go out of their way to hide users reading habits, and they will fight tooth and nail to keep the government ignorant of that information, but we and our privacy are nothing but another revenue stream for places like Amazon.

  10. In addition to the reasons listed in my post above, I neglected to mention the one Marilynn talks about—research. If I want to know who wrote a book or how to spell an author’s name, I look it up on Amazon. It often has nothing to do with something I am considering purchasing, so my profile is too skewed to be useful.

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