E-books are invading our privacy

July 18, 2012


As regular readers of this column know, I am very concerned with what I — and many others — perceive as a loss of privacy in our increasingly digital world. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and on National Public Radio have publicized another situation in which private corporations are gathering data on the public through data mining and the new science of “data analytics.”

Publishers of e-books like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are now collecting information on what and how readers read the e-books they purchase. E-book readers routinely send their publishers information about how readers read, i.e. how much time they spend on a particular book, how many times they open a text, what passages they highlight, etc. Those of us who thought that publishers’ involvement ended once we downloaded a book were wrong. E-book readers send as well as receive information on a far greater scale than we imagined possible.

Publishers gather this information, so they say, to better tailor their publishing to reader preferences. They have discovered, for instance, that science fiction readers read books more quickly than other readers and that readers of nonfiction usually don’t read a book from to start to finish at one sitting.

Many people are not disturbed that publishers are gathering information about their reading habits and practices. Others, however, such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, are quite troubled at this new loss of privacy. For many folks, particularly older people, reading has been a private practice and the idea that publishers now track our reading not only online but even when we purchase and download a text is very worrying.

My own feelings are mixed. On the one hand, the practice at the moment seems innocent enough but I wonder where it will stop. Can we look forward to a day when government agencies will routinely monitor our reading to see whether we are reading “subversive” texts?  What legal protections currently exist to prevent publishers from turning data about readers’ activities over to the government? It was only 10 years ago that a majority of Americans rose up in protest against the provisions in the Patriot Act that permitted law enforcement officials to have access to library circulation records. What is now going on is potentially a far greater attack on personal privacy.

Authors seem to be split on this new development. Scott Turow, a lawyer and best-selling author, likes the new use of data analytics, likes the idea that he can shape his writing to better fit popular tastes. Stephen King, however, a master of horror novels, is less sanguine and stated to NPR that he was “scared to death” of the new techniques. I imagine that he may be worried that law enforcement officers might well want to watch carefully those readers who highlight particularly gory passages in his novels. In what I suppose was supposed to be a comforting statement, one publisher stated that while data analytics might enable publishers to tell authors to shorten their novels, publishers would not, on the other hand, abridge “War and Peace” just because their data mining told them most readers didn’t finish Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

As a teacher I can see one positive use of this new form of data mining, at least if publishers will make the information available. Imagine the time when most school textbooks are e-books. With these new data mining techniques teachers will be able to check whether their students actually are reading the texts assigned to them.

Interestingly, one of the leading law school textbook publishers, West Publishing Company, announced last week that it will cease publishing hard copy texts next year and move exclusively to e-book publishing. I suppose that many law teachers, if they can get the data on how well students are completing their assignments, might be thrilled. On the other hand, I would imagine that many law students will not be as happy and may well decide that privacy in reading is more important than they might otherwise have thought.

Welcome to our “brave new world.” I, for one, will continue to read books in hard copy so long as it is possible to do so and reserve my e-reader (yes, I have one) and my I-Pad for other uses.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


dncinnanc 5 years, 10 months ago

The library card monitoring feature of the Patriot Act gave me a chill. I don't own an e-reader (yet), but this news is really unsettling. Agreed with the author until he brought up being able to track what his students were actually reading.. Have to ask, is Orwellian monitoring of homework assignments really the best way to shape the next generation of the workforce? I sure hope not.

dncinnanc 5 years, 10 months ago

Sorry, a few glasses of wine deep when reading/posting last night.. it inhibited my sarcasm detector ;-)

chootspa 5 years, 10 months ago

You can still buy DRM-free eBooks from someone other than Amazon and sideload them into a third party reading app on something other than a Nook or Fire.

RoeDapple 5 years, 10 months ago

Privacy went out the window 50 years ago. Google your own name if you doubt it.

Tomato 5 years, 10 months ago

Yeah, your smartphone probably does a better job of invading your privacy and tracking your spending. Ultimately, your Kindle can only mine what books you buy.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about Google circumventing Apple's IPhone code to mine user data. Google pulled the code but claimed it was legal.

Orbitz already tailors its search results for Mac users, showing more expensive choices, because Mac users spend more than PC users. How long do you think it will take before tailored choices are being shown to people purchasing from smartphones (truth is, it's probably already happening).

Liberty275 5 years, 10 months ago

You'd think someone as smart as a professor would know how to use torrents to download an unlocked version after buying a copy. Maybe he just never used linux.

Also, problem solved: http://www.gutenberg.org/

gr 5 years, 10 months ago

Imagine the possibilities! Compare thousands of people's highlighting, if there are consistent ones, that must be an important part. Create computer generated "cliff notes". Sell to new book buyers.

If Google can enter code into IPhones, looks like someone else would be able to generate code which blocks the transmission. And sell it. And then sell information to the publishers which users are using blocking code.

Let the wars begin.

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