E-book readers are great, right? But are you aware that they also gather data on all of your reading habits? And in the US this information can be used to prosecute individuals. Of course, e-book manufacturers don’t tell you this. And while shops like Amazon talk about protecting privacy, what they do with data from its Kindle e-reader for instance, is buried in thousands of words of legal jargon. It’s certainly not upfront and straightforward. They don’t say ‘we spy on your reading habits, but that is what they do. But you can stop it, if you want to.
Is your Amazon Kindle spying on you? Well, yes it is. It knows how long it took you to read a book, at which point you stopped reading, how many pages you read, and which passages you have highlighted or bookmarked.
But of course you were aware of this when you signed an agreement granting Amazon permission to store information from the device in its servers, weren’t you? But did you know Amazon even collects battery life and download speeds to monitor device performance?
This all may seem ominous but in the digital world this data traffic, from device to server, is the norm. And the data is ostensibly used to analyse reading habits so Amazon can get a better sense of what is popular, how long readers read for, at which points in the book they stop reading, what part of the text they highlight and so on.
This collection and analysis of data is known as Big Data, the latest trend in technology, and one in which organisations aim to gain greater insight into their customers and discover new things that they can exploit.
Amazon is reading your reading
George Orwell, author of the eponymous 1984 might groan in his grave, but in this commercially-driven world publishers salivate at the prospect of knowing as much about their readers as possible.
And if there is one area that has lagged behind the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to measuring consumers' tastes and habits, it is publishing.
Previously reader satisfaction has been gauged by sales data and reviews. But this is changing as publishers and booksellers start to embrace reader insights. And tech companies have a new opportunity with publishing.
But Amazon and its Kindle aren’t alone. Amazon, Apple and Google can easily track how far readers are getting into a book, 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 sifting through the data, to gain insight into how people engage with books.
A new digital reading world is opening up
It’s also led to a different type of book publisher. Some e-book companies have popped up that offer readers different choices in a story line. For instance, a reader can progress into a book then follow one of several different plot options by focusing on a particular character.
This is the new reading world that digital publishing is opening up and together with data collected from reading habits is changing the face of traditional publishing. However, it does present challenges. Some authors are happy with it because for the first time ever they are receiving reader feedback, which is helping them shape books more attuned to reader preferences.
That to one side this data-driven approach has inherent problems; it could for example, stifle creativity and lead to dumbing down. Imagine if Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace had been put under the data microscope to see how long it took readers to get through it? If this measure alone was used to assess the commercial value of a book War and Peace might never have made it onto the book shelves. So what about future literary classics?
Kindle reading - from solitary pleasure to quasi-public knowledge
And while reader response can provide insight into the popularity of a book such as Fifty Shades of Grey what would happen to lesser known works, which are considered classics in their own right but have relatively small audiences such as Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War?
Reading used to be a solitary and private act, an exchange between the reader and the words on the page. But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and almost public.
For instance, if publishers recognise that readers routinely quit long works of nonfiction, they can consider alternatives such as shorter works, and even snapshots, on non-fiction topics.
Identifying the moment when readers get bored can also help publishers sustain interest by adding a video, a Web link or other multimedia features, for instance.
It’s hardly surprising that this shift is taking place, after all this is the digital age and of course every business wants to know more about its customers, this knowledge is the grease that drives the wheels of commerce.
Does Amazon care about reader privacy?
But what about reader privacy? For centuries, reading has been a solitary act but now this is changing. The data collected from a Kindle may be aggregated and anonymous therefore safeguarding individual identities. But it is still a form of spying that presents significant new threats to reader privacy.
Despite the fact that e-books send back substantial information about their users' reading habits and locations to the companies that sell them, e-book manufacturers do not explain to people in clear, unambiguous language what data is being collected and why.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organisation dedicated to defending the rights of citizens in the digital world, put together a report a few years ago on an e-book buyers’ guide to privacy. It’s an interesting and useful guide and one of the questions it poses goes straight to the heart of the matter: ‘With whom can they share the information collected in non-aggregated form?’
The answer is that Amazon’s Kindle, Google Books and Barnes & Noble Nook can all share individual private reading habits with ‘Law enforcement and civil litigants.’ Why and for what reasonable purpose? No doubt the justifications centre on ‘national security’ for instance someone reading a bomb-making manual or ‘preparing an act of terrorism.’ It’s a spurious reason and if law enforcement deems curiosity the same as intent then it’s also deeply disturbing.
EFF is an American organisation and the fact that Amazon, Google and Barnes & Noble can share your individual reading habits applies to American citizens. But thanks to digital technologies we live in a global world and over-zealous mission creep is a feature of all authorities and governments. A recent hack of Italian spyware vendor, The Hacking Team, showed just how keen governments are to snoop, intrude and gather data.
How to disconnect from Amazon and claim back your rights
If you think monitoring your reading habits is serious invasion of your privacy then you can do something about it. For instance you can ‘jailbreak’ your Kindle which is essentially the process of removing hardware restrictions and getting more privileges. It’s not illegal and it puts you back in control. By jailbreaking your Kindle tweaks to its software take place so it doesn’t report back to Amazon. You can also jailbreak other e-book readers.
As an alternative you can simply switch off the Wi-Fi connection when you’re reading. Amazon will know which books you’ve downloaded but it certainly won’t have detailed information on your reading habits.
What and how you read is nobody else's business. You’re already familiar with the need to stay safe online but in in a world where the recording of eye movements, smiles, frowns and other body movements is only a small technological step away, protecting your privacy is becoming increasingly important.