When you go on holiday this year, will you be reading a Kindle on the beach, or perhaps by a lake? Maybe you don’t have a Kindle, but instead use the mobile app on your preferred smartphone, or use other tools for reading eBooks, such as the Nook reader from Barnes & Noble. Maybe you just rely on PDFs.
What you probably don’t know is that your reading activity can be monitored, recorded and even shared with government security agencies.
Not so keen to read Fifty Shades of Grey all of a sudden? Read on…
The Convenience of an EBook Library In Your Pocket
No one can deny how wonderful it is to be able to pull any book out of your pocket and start reading it, almost anywhere. Whether your preferred tome is in PDF format, EPUB (you might have downloaded it or converted the book to this format) or available only on Kindle, the vast majority of published books is available for you to read at your convenience.
Amazon has 3.1 million titles in the Kindle store, and sold $5 billion worth of Kindle readers (from the basic grey models to the Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Fire HDX) in 2014 alone. This puts them in the undisputed position of market leader, the first stop for the majority of readers looking for a new book to read, either on Kindle or one of those funny, old, dusty physical books.
But with this success comes a potential threat to customers.
Data Collected About You While Reading
It has been established that Amazon collects certain information about its readers. This goes beyond the basic analytics that you would expect to be collected by a progressive, digital company like Amazon (Apple, Barnes & Noble and Google Play Books – which you can now add your own books to – use similar techniques). The use of big data such as how long you spend reading, how far you make it through a book, search terms used to find the books and genres that you find appealing is a major part of these companies’ strategy, and also helps publishers to develop more readable books. As Kindle spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall told the Wall Street Journal:
“We think of it as the collective intelligence of all the people reading on Kindle.”
(There is an element of the by-numbers, mechanical approach to this, you might have noticed, similar to satires of producers chasing television ratings or cinema ticket sales. For the book industry, eBooks have been a complete revolution. As Barnes & Noble’s Jim Hilt put it in the same article: “The bigger trend we’re trying to unearth is where are those drop-offs in certain kinds of books, and what can we do with publishers to prevent that? If we can help authors create even better books than they create today, it’s a win for everybody.”)
- “information related to the Digital Content on your Kindle and Supported Devices and your use of it … such as last page read and content archiving”
- “including annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings”
- “servers that are located outside the country in which you live”
- “personalise and continually improve your shopping experience”
- “send offers to selected groups of Amazon.co.uk customers on behalf of other businesses”
- “comply with the law; enforce or apply our Conditions of Use and other agreements; or protect the rights, property or safety of Amazon.co.uk, our users or others.”
Some of this makes uncomfortable reading. After all, Amazon has servers in China, and just why did the book giant need to know about “annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights or similar markings”?
“Backup and Restore. Some Kindle devices have a feature that, when enabled, backs up to the cloud certain data on your Kindle, including settings, email and wireless configurations, bookmarks, search history and more, so that you can restore that data later to a Kindle.”
Not quite as concerning, you’ll agree. But the fact that such information can be collected is still a concern, even if, for whatever reason, Amazon has decided that it will no longer gather such data.
Are There Any Secure Alternatives?
So, there is a privacy threat with regards to what you’re reading on your Kindle, just as there is when it comes to reading web pages. The difference, of course, is that it’s easier to refer back to material in a book that you carry in your pocket, a book that might contain information or ideas that may be considered unpalatable by a prevailing political philosophy.
Jumping ship to iBooks, Google Books, Kobo or any of the smaller companies doesn’t seem like the best option at this stage, while it’s important to remember that PDFs, while flexible, and often free, are not secure, and can contain malware (Trojans, worms, viruses, spyware and even ransomware).
However, there is one option that you can pretty much guarantee to be secure. You simply buy a physical book (those old things made from paper, remember?) with cash from a bricks and mortar retailer (or better still, from a second-hand book retailer or even church sale). Only you will know your favourite pages and passages, only you will know how far through the book you are. Better still, you’ll be able to read without the concern that someone, somewhere, has an unhealthy interest in your favourite books.
Did you know that Amazon is recording bookmarks and highlighting? Were you aware of the vulnerabilities of PDF? Tell us what you think in the comments.