Should eBooks and Privacy Be a Concern for Us?

Here’s another reason for eBook haters to complain about the digitization of the written word — your reading habits are no longer secret. While it is not surprising to assume Amazon, B&N and Kobo are watching what you read, the Wall Street Journal has a very detailed account of just how much is being watched.

From the Journal:

Publishing has lagged far behind the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to measuring consumers’ tastes and habits. TV producers relentlessly test new shows through focus groups; movie studios run films through a battery of tests and retool them based on viewers’ reactions. But in publishing, reader satisfaction has largely been gauged by sales data and reviews—metrics that offer a postmortem measure of success but can’t shape or predict a hit. That’s beginning to change as publishers and booksellers start to embrace big data, and more tech companies turn their sights on publishing.

Barnes & Noble, which accounts for 25% to 30% of the e-book market through its Nook e-reader, has recently started studying customers’ digital reading behavior. Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.

The stakes are high for the company as it seeks a greater share of the e-book market. Sales of Nook devices rose 45% this past fiscal year, and e-book sales for the Nook rose 119%. Overall, Nook devices and e-books generated $1.3 billion, compared to $880 million the previous year. Microsoft recently invested $300 million for a 17.6% stake of the Nook.


To be fair, Amazon, Apple, and the other ebook vendors all take a turn on the roasting spit in the article, so B&N isn’t singled out for watching how many times you read “Shades of Grey”. But the WSJ brings up an important point, that we give up a lot of privacy in exchange for digital perks like immediate downloads and tweeting from books. Worst of all, given how easy it is to sync books, and how necessary it is to turn on wireless to download new books, you can’t really escape it. Honestly, I am not even sure bringing your own books that you load into a Kindle or NOOK would help; presumably they can at least identify that you brought in a file of your own, even if they can’t read the contents.

The thing is, I understand we get tracked obsessively. My cable company notices how often I use my DVR, and probably tracks how often I use their iOS app to program it. They know when we record shows but don’t watch, and they clearly know when we use their OnDemand system and what we choose. Verizon tracks my data, my phone calls, and my text messages. I can’t even begin to fathom how much information Google and Apple have on me … but it just stings a little bit that even books aren’t sacred anymore.

Sure, bookstores did this before the eBook. But when we asked people at Borders for an email address, or a zip code, or to sign up for a doomed Borders Rewards cards, there was a simple, clear way to opt out … all it took was saying “No!” I don’t think I can even point to where an opt out would be that would prevent Amazon from tracking your Kindle reading habits, let alone what legalese such an opt out would have.

On the other hand, I love ebooks. A lot. I don’t go anywhere without my Kindle, or my iPhone or iPad with the Kindle app ready to go. I have always been a voracious reader, and having my library in my pocket is damn near irresistible. Amazon, B&N and the other stores know this, and they are looking for any way to make us buy more from their outlets only.

If this comes down to “buy eBooks and suck it up” or “don’t buy eBooks”, I will be honest … I am not abandoning my Kindle. However, the Wall Street Journal’s take is a good reminder that I need to be vigilant about my privacy and my rights, and that I need to pay close attention to suggestions, terms of service changes, and of course, any privacy policies that may impact me.

We will do our best at Gear Diary to pay attention to these issues, but if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or experiences, please let us know in the comments!


Categories: eBooks

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3 replies

  1. Sometimes I think David Brin is right, and that privacy is basically dead, and the only way to fight back is for ordinary citizens to have the same level of surveillance power as governments and giant corporations. How would we get there? Well, in Brin’s “Earth”, it took a world war (“Helvetia delenda est!”). I would rather it didn’t, but I’m beginning to think maybe that’s the only way to get there.

    Yes, I’m a pessimistic guy. Pity me.

  2. I’ve long since accepted that privacy is a lost thing. And it sucks. We gave it away – no question. We gave it up for 2 reasons – convenience and for a false sense of security. So I guess I’m resigned to it. Doesn’t make it right, but I agree, Doug, our only defense may be to make sure we also have visibility into the agencies and organizations that are watching us.


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