December 16, 2010

E-readers report home


Yikes, kids! It’s even worse than this paranoid, conspiracy-theory believing lefty New York liberal thought! NPR reports that the e-reader’s ability to download a book for anywhere, also works the other way. It can report back to Amazon or Apple or whoever sold the e-book where you are, what you’re reading, and the rate your reading it at. According to the report:

Most e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.

“They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. ”It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out.”

This may all seem innocuous enough to you non-paranoid types, but for the rest of us, the report continues:

…if the company keeps the data long-term, the information could be subpoenaed to check someone’s alibi, or as evidence in a lawsuit.

And it’s not just what pages you read; it may also monitor where you read them. Kindles, iPads and other e-readers have geo-location abilities; using GPS or data from Wi-Fi and cell phone towers, it wouldn’t be difficult for the devices to track their own locations in the physical world.

But it’s hard to find out what kind of data the e-readers are sending. Most e-book companies refer all questions about this to their posted privacy policies. The policies can be hard to interpret, so Cohn and the EFF created a side-by-side comparison. It’s just been updated to include Apple’s iPad.

The privacy policies also leave important questions unanswered. For instance, how long do the companies store page-view data?

What’s more, most of these companies have not been very forthcoming in responding to questions about their practices. Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony declined being interviewed for the NPR report. But Google and Apple iBooks did respond to the question of what they did with the data they collected:

— Google Books: Google recently started selling e-books that can be read on computers and third-party handheld devices. The company’s system appears to save only the last five pages viewed to help the reader keep his place. But Google actually stores more pages than that behind the scenes for what it calls “security monitoring” — to prevent the “abusive sharing” of books. A Google representative says these page views may be stored with a user’s account for “several weeks” before being erased.

— Apple’s iBooks: The system used on iPads and iPhones sends information back to the company. But an Apple representative calls it “functional data.” The spokesman says the data is “unidentifiable,” and is used only to help Apple “understand customers and customer behavior.”

Currently, Amazon is the big gorilla in the e-book world because of the popularity of their Kindle. Author Scott Turow, head of the Author’s Guild told NPR,”[The Kindle] is just one more string in their bow. They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender and other interests of the people who bought my books. Now you can throw on top of that the fact that a certain number of them quit reading at Page 45.”

Publishers see this technology as the start of “social reading.” According to NPR:

Some in the publishing industry look forward to a new age of “social reading,” in which devices allow readers to share their reactions with each other. And the author might be interested in seeing a graph of the page-turns of thousands of people as they read his latest novel.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with looking, but I would probably ignore what I saw,” says author Stephen King. “There’s a thing about certain pitchers who all of a sudden can’t find the strike zone and are walking a lot of hitters and giving up a lot of hits, and you’ll hear the announcer say, ‘He’s steering the ball.’ And writers can do that, too.”

But King expects the data will continue to be collected, as book-lovers switch to networked devices.

“Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me,” King says. “But it is the way that things are.” Atta boy, Stephen! Stand up and be counted!

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.