The e-reader privacy paradox

In his book “Intellectual privacy: rethinking civil liberties in the digital age. Oxford University Press”, Neil Richards talks about the ereader privacy paradox

He uses Fifty shades of grey to illustrate the point he wants to make. Though print editions of the book were hard to find in Britain and the United States, the book sold millions of copies as an e-book. Its largely female readership repeatedly praised the privacy that the ebook version allowed.

An article in the New York Times makes the same point (Julie Bosman Discreetly digital, erotic novel sets American women abuzz It quotes Valerie Hoskins, agent to the author of Shades of Grey as saying “…women have the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles.”

But of course, Amazon knows what you read on your Kindle, what pages you have looked at, what annotations you have made, how long you have spent reading the novel, where you are up to and so on. The same would be true of Adobe if you had used the Adobe Digital Editions software.

Richards is quite right to speak of there being an e-reader privacy paradox. Isn’t that true of the internet too – that people are lured into a false sense of security. They can search the web from the privacy of their own homes, but those searches are far from being private and yet it creates the illusion of privacy.

If you went into a library, and were followed around by someone – whether it were a member of library staff, or a library user – wouldn’t you start to feel uncomfortable, almost as though someone was stalking you, watching your every move – what books you browsed on the shelves, which subject areas you headed towards, which titles you picked off the shelves to scan through, which books you took to the self-checkout machine etc. Wouldn’t you be outraged? So why are people not outraged by the tracking that takes place on the web which is far more pernicious – for example the tracking that occurs if they use Google Books, or Amazon’s “search inside the book” feature. Surely that sort of tracking is exponentially worse, because with ruthless efficiency huge quantities of data are being gathered, building up a profile about you where the data is kept permanently.

And what about the tracking that takes place when you use some library websites – ones that track in the form of analytics software, advertisers, social networking plugins, and the like)? Marshall Breeding (IN Privacy and security for library systems – Chapter 3:Data from library implementations. Library Technology Reports, 52(4) 2016, pp. 29-35) notes the tracking that was found on library websites / discovery services / online catalogs. It included (among others) Google Analytics, Google Ajax search API, Google AdSense, Google Translate, Google Tag Manager, DoubleClick, Yahoo Analytics, Adobe Omniture Analytics, Adobe Tag Manager, Adobe TypeKit, Facebook Connect, Facebook Social Plugin, Twitter Button, WebTrends.