Reader Privacy Under Threat in the Digital Age
September 2, 2012 | 1:09 pm
By Joanna Cabot
There was an interesting overview of reader privacy issues in this week’s Guardian. I wonder if most e-book readers have given any thought to the issue.
I bet it hasn’t even crossed their minds that the customer profile Amazon or Kobo or Sony might have on them—detailing what they’ve purchased, and when—would be valuable to someone.
And if they did see the value (I myself find Amazon’s recommendations engine both useful and surprisingly accurate), I wonder if it’s crossed their minds that this information could potentially be shared once Amazon has it.
As the article points out:
“Retailers and search engines, most notably Amazon and Google, 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 campaigners have quipped, it’s the equivalent of a bookshop hiring someone to follow you round the shop noting every book you pick up, then sitting at home with you while you read what you bought.”
The article outlines the actions several states are making to require police or governments to have a court order before they can get your reader profile. And that is a good first step. But I think it’s also worth noting that police and government professionals are going to need training in order to put this stuff into its proper context, the same way they’ve needed training for gangs, drugs and other social concerns which evolve and change over time.
It’s important, of course, to consider the case of Rizwaan Sabir, the man mentioned in the Guardian story: In 2008, as a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Nottingham, he was wrongly arrested and held for seven days after downloading the al-Qaeda training manual as research for his university work on counter-terrorism, and therefore clearly had a legitimate and non-criminal use for the material. (He was eventually given an apology from the police, along with £20,000 in compensation.) But it’s also worth noting that the rights given to me by Amazon and Kobo, for instance, allow me to download books for other people.
My mother and my boyfriend both have Kobo devices registered to my account, and when they want books, I buy them for them. Technically, I have broken no rules. I am allowed to register a certain number of devices, I have done so, and the fact that these devices are not for my use is immaterial. Invariably, the books they choose don’t interest me much anyway, and once I download them onto their respective devices, I never look at them again. But it’s my profile that those books are a part of. Are the police going to believe me if I ever have to defend that fact?
* * *
I remember one day when my Beloved was home sick, and passed the time by watching a boatload of Holocaust documentaries on Netflix. Our ‘Recommended for You’ screen has never been the same since. The ‘you’ that Netflix thinks it is recommending films to is actually a multi-person household. As yet, the Amazons and Kobos and Googles of the world currently have no way to differentiate that. I can’t keep a separate instant queue for me, for him, for the kids who sometimes visit us. As a result, Netflix thinks I want to watch Holocaust documentaries and Dora the Explorer, but I don’t.
It’s the same with my Kobo account: I couldn’t care less about memoirs written by famous comedians or Fifty Shades of Grey. I had no involvement with these books beyond paying for them for others’ use. So why should I be judged for having them, when they aren’t even really mine?
* * *
In some ways, the Internet is still a new frontier, and as such, our rights and obligations regarding our conduct on it are still in their infancy. A little bit of balance is required here. I do think we need better privacy options; the way Facebook rolls out changes and makes them the default—without asking you, unless you opt out after the fact—is horrifying. But we also need our online vendors to offer us more robust management options.
We need an e-book ecosystem with good parental controls, for instance, so we can buy content for our kids, and then later ‘emancipate’ that content to them when they’re old enough to get their own accounts. We need a system where Amazon can share some information about you—if required by law—but without having to turn over your entire file. And we do need training for our law enforcement personnel on how the digital ecosystem works.
I’ll be curious to see how digital privacy policies evolve over time. And you should be, too.