December 4, 2012

It’s confirmed: E-readers know everything


Every year, the Electronic Frontiers Foundation releases its report on popular e-book platforms and their privacy policies. They comb through the fine print of Google Books, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Sony, Overdrive, Indiebound, Internet Archive, and Adobe Content Server so you don’t have to, though you really should.

We know by now that almost all e-book platforms track book searches and purchases, but nevertheless, it is still disconcerting to see that material gathered in one place. Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Sony all collect this information, and a great deal more.

Did you know, for example, that Google stores the last five pages of each book you read?

What may also be new information for readers is the large number of platforms that share information with outside companies—without the express permission of the customer.

Google Books is the only platform that requires readers to first opt-in before information can be shared, besides Internet Archive and Adobe Content Server, which for the most part do not collect user-specific information.

Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Sony, Overdrive and IndieBound, however, all share information without readers’ consent. And while on the Amazon Kindle, for example, “users may opt-out of use of information only for certain promotional and marketing purposes,” those certain “promotional and marketing purposes” are unclear, and it is not revealed what other purposes information may be used for.

I would also argue, that having to “opt-out” is an onerous burden on patrons, and should be acceptable only when the company has engaged in a rigorous campaign to notify their customers.

The other disconcerting information from the EFF is about the inability of readers to alter or delete personal information online. On Google, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Sony, OverDrive and IndieBound, users are only “somewhat” able to alter the information collected by those companies. On the Barnes & Noble Nook, for example, users may access, correct, and change their account info at any time, but there is no right to access or delete search and purchase history. What is there, in short, is there forever.

The graphs all indicate the overwhelming opaqueness of the e-book platforms’ privacy policies. Really, they are almost so opaque that one wonders if it’s intentional. Of course, e-book platforms are an industry in its infancy, but consumer data is a goldmine. It’s much easier to go through various new trial-and-error collection methods and sell that information when no one understands what in the world is being done.

This metaphor has been over-used, but it is in fact just as if someone followed you around the bookstore, tracked you home, and wrote down that you highlighted “[i]t is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” just like everybody else.




Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.