The Wall Street Journal reports that, because of the rising popularity of electronic readers such as Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s iPad and other devices, publishers and retailers have a large amount of data about individuals’ reading habits. This has implications for the privacy of individuals’ reading habits:
In the past, publishers and authors had no way of knowing what happens when a reader sits down with a book. Does the reader quit after three pages, or finish it in a single sitting? Do most readers skip over the introduction, or read it closely, underlining passages and scrawling notes in the margins? Now, e-books are providing a glimpse into the story behind the sales figures, revealing not only how many people buy particular books, but how intensely they read them. [...]
But the rise of digital books has prompted a profound shift in the way we read, transforming the activity into something measurable and quasi-public.
The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books. [...]
Some privacy watchdogs argue that e-book users should be protected from having their digital reading habits recorded. “There’s a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else’s business,” says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumer rights and privacy. “Right now, there’s no way for you to tell Amazon, I want to buy your books, but I don’t want you to track what I’m reading.” [...]
EFF has pressed for legislation to prevent digital book retailers from handing over information about individuals’ reading habits as evidence to law enforcement agencies without a court’s approval. Earlier this year, California instituted the “reader privacy act,” which makes it more difficult for law-enforcement groups to gain access to consumers’ digital reading records. Under the new law, agencies must get a court order before they can require digital booksellers to turn over information revealing which books their customers have browsed, purchased, read and underlined. The American Civil Liberties Union and EFF, which partnered with Google and other organizations to push for the legislation, are now seeking to enact similar laws in other states.
Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security—including his own works—out of fear that their reading is being tracked. “There are a gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private,” Mr. Schneier says.
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