Why EBooks Are Recording Information About Your Reading Habits

Christian Cawley 26-02-2015

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 Go4Convert: Online File Conversion To PDF & EPUB Read More ) 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 Amazon Kindle Fire HDX Review and Giveaway Is the Kindle Fire HDX worth owning if you haven't owned a Kindle before? To find out, we purchased a 16 GB Kindle Fire HDX 7" (Wi-Fi) without special offers for $244, and we're giving... Read More ) 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 Get More Out of Google Play Books By Adding Your Favorite eBooks Google Play Books isn't just for eBooks purchased from Google; you can easily upload your own ePub or PDF eBooks that sync with Play Books. Read More  – 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.”)



Up until July 2014, when Amazon changed their privacy policy, the following – relating to data that is collected and potentially shared – was included:

  • “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 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, 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”?

Press reports of these details in 2014 suggested a relationship with the NSA. While this would surprise nobody post-Snowden, Amazon has since revised its privacy policy. Now, the only reference to bookmarks comes here:

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 What Is The Difference Between A Worm, A Trojan & A Virus? [MakeUseOf Explains] Some people call any type of malicious software a "computer virus," but that isn't accurate. Viruses, worms, and trojans are different types of malicious software with different behaviors. In particular, they spread themselves in very... Read More ).

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.

Image Credit: Reading eBook Via Shutterstock, Robert Drózd, Image Credit: Lady Reading via Shutterstock

Related topics: Amazon Kindle, Ebooks, Online Privacy.

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  1. Doc
    February 28, 2015 at 12:56 am

    I won't use one of the "store-provided" readers or apps, nor will I buy anything with tracking or DRM embedded in it, which is why I prefer ePub format - I can open it up with almost any ZIP application and review the contents (7-Zip will open some, but not all, MOBI files).
    I've been using Moon+ Reader since I got my first Android device; it's nice, clean, and lets me use my own choice of font(s). Has there been any reported problem with this app?

  2. Jaorslav Popovich
    February 27, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    I came to say the same thing as likefunbutnot. I own my ebooks, and to hell with Amazon or anybody else's ToS or EULA. I understand that USA law may prevent you from breaking the Amazon DRM, but that's not a problem where I live. If the DRM ever becomes unbreakable, I'll buy the paper book and read that, or scan it in. (Fuji Snapscan, ftw!)

  3. likefunbutnot
    February 27, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    When I purchase an ebook from Amazon, the first thing I do is download it using the desktop Kindle client, then strip the DRM and convert it to an .epub with Calibre. I prefer to read with Aldiko. I do use Google Play Books as a storage-only solution, but I don't read using that app for the same reason I don't read from within Kindle.

  4. bben
    February 27, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    My reading habits using my ebook reader are totally different than when reading a real book. Why? My ebook reader ( actually a 10 inch Galaxy tab4 ) is used when I am waiting somewhere. In an airport, on the plane, in the doctors office. In these cases I may have to just stop wherever I am when the wait abruptly ends. At home, I prefer a real paper book. And will read for hours uninterrupted. Only stopping at breaks such as a chapter end. I actually like both ways of reading. Therefore, I tend to pick different kinds of books for e-reading from paper reading. Meaning, there is no 'ONE AND ONLY ONE' preferred way to read a book like the marketing 'experts' would like the CEOs of these companies to believe. However, IF the publishing companies will actually lower the price of ebooks to a more reasonable price based on their cost to produce, then I might move to mostly ebook reading.

  5. Just-saying
    February 27, 2015 at 3:13 am

    So we should stop reading on-line news and go back to physical newspapers?

    • dragonmouth
      February 27, 2015 at 12:33 pm

      And what is wrong with that? :-)

      At least a physical paper or book will not collect data about you.

    • Christian Cawley
      February 27, 2015 at 8:04 pm

      It would do my eyes the world of good...

  6. dragonmouth
    February 27, 2015 at 12:37 am

    " Only you will know your favourite pages and passages, only you will know how far through the book you are"
    You also KNOW that the book is really, trully yours. Nobody from the bookstore will come to your house and take the book back.

    • Christopher
      February 27, 2015 at 4:26 am

      "Nobody from the bookstore will come to your house and take the book back" - agreed. That's why I'll never purchase an eBook. I believe that there's a need for some kind of modern, "Digital" bill of rights; something that goes beyond the right to keep what digital media we pay for and details our right to use a digital product or service WITHOUT the requirement that we sign a privacy waiver. Something that says, "No person shall be required to allow their personal actions or habits to be stored, shared or monetized as a requirement for the use of a digital service or product."

      This would mean that the developers of such digital services and products would be required to implement a single choice for data storage: local or remote and leave that choice to the user of that product.