At MSNBC’s Red Tape Chronicles, Bob Sullivan reports that online store Amazon has a feature in its Kindle e-reader devices that is raising privacy questions:
Readers of old-fashioned dead-tree books often like to underline or highlight passages they find particularly meaningful, or scribble notes for later reference. All e-book readers offer an electronic equivalent of such note-taking. But Kindle users who highlight passages will now have a record of those highlights sent back to Amazon servers, where they will be compiled and sorted to help produce a new feature called “Popular Highlights.” […]
Amazon does not reveal preferences of individual users. Only passages highlighted by three or more users are included.
Still, Larry Ponemon, who runs privacy consulting firm The Ponemon Institute, said some users will bristle at the notion that Amazon can track which passages they highlight while reading. The feature “definitely steps over the line,” he said.
One of the biggest problems is that “Popular Highlights” is turned on by default — so customers have to 1) learn that their data is being sent back to Amazon and 2) figure out how to opt-out. How do users opt out? By disabling a feature on the Kindle e-reader that automatically backs up users’ notes and highlights. And Amazon doesn’t seem to be publicizing the “Popular Highlights” feature.
MSNBC reports that the feature “launched quietly to some users who downloaded the latest version of Kindle software beginning last month” and the software will be released widely soon. Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener told MSNBC that users are told of the new feature through “forum posts, help pages, and when we release new software to the device.”
Gathering and keeping readers’ data without their consent is a privacy violation. To say otherwise is to ignore that historically, individuals, booksellers and libraries have fought to protect the privacy of reading habits. There was controversy when it was learned that, in the 1980s, the FBI created the “Library Awareness Program,” a system to obtain library records to monitor reading habits. The FBI later revealed that it had investigated hundreds of Americans – librarians and others – because they protested the program.
Last year, Amazon had to apologize after an uproar over the fact that the company remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s books from the Kindles of people who had bought the books. Amazon deleted the books because they were added to the Kindle store by a company without rights to the works. Some postings on forums reported that Amazon had also deleted Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and works by Ayn Rand.
Users were angry that a company could sneak into their e-readers and take back a book digitally; the same company would be legally prevented from coming into readers’ homes to take back a printed book.
Recently, the ACLU of Northern California released an issue paper on privacy and electronic media, “Digital Books: A New Chapter for Reader Privacy.”