30 September 2012

Spying E-Readers

by Louis Willis

Are we Americans overly paranoid about corporations and government collecting information about us?

I’m not sounding an alarm, but based on two articles I read in the online journal The Guardian, our reading privacy and reading freedom, it seems, are being threatened.

Like many people, I worry about privacy when I use the Internet. The article “Big e-Reader is watching you” (July 4, 2012) by Alison Flood has increased the worry gremlins running around in my head. “Retailers and search engines,” she writes, “can now gather an astonishingly detailed portrait of our book-reading habits: what we buy, what we browse, the amount of time we spend on a page and even the annotations we make in an ebook.”

As the article suggests, if you use an E-reader or computer, the Big Brothers--book publishers, booksellers, the government, and maybe even authors--are watching what you read, how long it takes you to finish a novel, and what parts you highlight. I read an article (forgot to copy the URL) in another online publication or blog that a small publisher of E-books has gone so far as to allow readers to chose their heroes, heroines, and plots. It seems the publisher wants to make storytelling and reading what it is not and shouldn’t be for adult readers--interactive.

Jo Glanville in his article “Reader’s privacy is under threat in the digital age” (August 31, 2012) notes that the digital trail we leave behind when we download an E-book to our computer or E-reader is a source of information for the government to track us and for business to see us as potential customers and thus profit. California is tackling the problem of government spying head on. The legislature passed “The Reader Privacy Act” that requires government agencies to obtain a court order to collect information about a reader online or from bookstores. We can solve the problem of the government gathering information about our reading habits by following California’s example and forcing the government at all levels to obtain a court order before gathering information about what we read.

Authors, publishers, booksellers, and E-reader makers are a different matter. Authors already cater to readers’ taste in novels that have series protagonists. Authors want two things: to be read and to be paid for what they write. Publishers, booksellers, and E-reader makers want one thing: to make a profit. The E-book sellers for now, through E-readers, are in the driver’s seat. I can’t share an E-book with friends without the seller’s permission, though I suspect some smart geek will eventually, like music sharing, find a way around the restrictions, and, like the music producers, publishers, E-book sellers, and authors will fight back. Authors and publishers are challenging E-book sellers for control of E-book pricing. I hope the authors win but who ever wins, I also hope it benefits us readers.

That our E-readers are spying on us should be no surprise, for our computers have been spying on us for years. We will, because we don’t have a choice, accept the spying because the control of E-books and what we read is in the hands of manufacturers and sellers of E-readers. I have not yet made up my mind as to whether this is a good or bad thing. I don’t like the gathering of information on me by businesses or government, just as I don’t like authors posting fake reviews or bullying reviewers and critics (see Leigh’s September 9 post), but I’ll keep reading E-books on my three E-readers.

I tried but couldn’t write a humorous post on the threat to our freedom and privacy to read. There has to be some humor in the situation, doesn’t there?


  1. I fell guilty about having an ebook out!
    And interesting, if alarming, post.

  2. Louis, that's spooky. Usually I'm the paranoid one, worrying about government and corporate intrusion, but that's a brilliant article you put together. Thank you!

  3. oh, great. I buy a Kindle and now I get to worry what it reports back to amazon and the gov. one more reason to stick with paperbacks.

  4. Now this, and I haven't even gotten over my son showing me that the Google maps show closeups of my house and dog.

  5. Here's the best humor I have found on this subject:

  6. Ebooks can also be controlled by the seller/publisher after they've been purchased. In 2009, Amazon wiped a purchased book from Kindles after the fact. Check out this article from the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/18/technology/companies/18amazon.html

  7. It gets worse. Every time I finish reading a book on my Kindle, before I can go back to the home page and open another book, it insists on inviting me to SHARE what I've just read--not the book, but the information. I have no desire to tell the world what I've been reading, nor do I think the world is waiting with bated breath to hear it. But the younger generation is being socialized in yet another way to reject privacy of any kind as a value or a desirable goal.

    BTW, have you been reading about the literary agent who got attacked by a disgruntled rejected writer? He had a baseball bat, she was in her car, her Jack Russell terrier bit him, the police caught the guy. But part of the story is that she was advertising her location (and that of her kids) routinely on her social networks. As we say in New York, oy vey!

  8. Fran, I gotta say: "Nice looking dog!" JK

    Louis, I really enjoyed this article. Really well put together, and informative.

    It seems the publisher wants to make storytelling and reading what it is not and shouldn’t be for adult readers--interactive.

    I think you're right. From what I've seen my kids (ages 9 - 23) and their friends doing, I strongly suspect most "books" -- in fifty years at the MOST -- will be presented in what we would currently think of as "video game format." The comming generations really want this, from what I've seen, and as you said: Authors want two things: to be read and to be paid for what they write. Consequently, I think we'll have to learn to write for this format, or give up the idea of a mass audience.

    Of course, I think there's one more reason writers write: They wanna be loved, man! LUUUUUVED! lol

    Great post,

  9. Fran, now I’ve got something else to worry about. I didn’t know Google maps could get close up and personal.

    Rob, the cartoon captures the humor perfectly.

    Elizabeth, I also get invited to share on my Kindle and Nook, and even sometimes my iPad. Although I don’t share, sometimes I feel like saying it ain’t none of you’lls business.

  10. Thanks for the headsup and I appreciate it. I had no idea but it makes sense now that you bring it up. Robert's cartoon is great.

  11. I hope people also read the NY Times article about Amazon and Orwell posted by the anonymous reader a few messages above.

  12. Very timely, Louis--I was planning on checking out a few e-readers this week. Liz makes a good point, too, about the conditioning of a generation as regards privacy. Television programming is going at hammer and tongs, as well, with all the "reality" shows. It appears that the concepts of both dignity, and civilty, are endangered.

  13. I wish them luck with my Kindle reading list, as it's 90% Victorian, pre-Victorian, Renaissance, and Ancient writers. Obviously, these are reference works for my future time travel excursion to the past. Now if I'd just divulge the nature of the time machine!

    The point is we haven't had privacy for years, no, decades. There are cameras on every street corner in every big city; in every shop; in every nook and cranny of every entertainment venue. Your only true privacy is between your ears - and they're working on that, with software that can supposedly tell what you're thinking by your brain images. Wait for it on the next I-phone. Bwaa-ha-ha-ha. (Except it's not that funny.)


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>