E-readers and e-book platforms track users' activity, says a new study

A new study shows that many major e-readers and e-book platforms track book searches, monitor what readers download, and can share information without a customer agreeing first. Is this the next step in satisfying consumers, or a little too Big Brother?

Dominick Reuter/Reuters
A new study found that many e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook track users' activity without their consent.

What does your e-reader know about you?

More than you think, according to a new study by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF, a nonprofit group that advocates for consumer rights and privacy, combed through the privacy policies of a number of e-readers and e-book platforms, including Google Books, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, and Indiebound, and found many devices track book searches, monitor what and how readers read downloaded books, record book purchases, and in some cases, even share information without a customer’s consent.

“In nearly all cases, reading e-books means giving up more privacy than browsing through a physical bookstore or library, or reading a paper book in your own home,” writes the EFF in its 2012 report.

The Foundation created a nifty chart that shows, at a glance, the privacy policy for nine different e-reading options.

The study found that five of the most popular e-readers, including the Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and Sony Reader, as well as Google Books, track searches for books as well as record book purchases. What’s more, six of the nine platforms or devices, including Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Sony, OverDrive, and IndieBound, can share information outside the company without customer consent.

“For centuries, reading has largely been a solitary and private act, an intimate exchange between the reader and the words on the page,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in an article on the subject earlier this year. “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.”

For example, analysis of e-reader data has already determined that it takes the average reader just seven hours to finish the final book in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy on a Kobo e-reader, about 57 pages per hour. And on the Nook, the first thing folks do after finishing the first “Hunger Games” book is to download the next one.

That extends to all popular series – readers tend to “tear through all the books in the series, almost as if they were reading a single novel,” according to the WSJ.

Among the other findings, nonfiction books “tend to be read in fits and starts,” while novels are read straight through. Long nonfiction tends to be abandoned earlier, while science fiction, romance, and crime fiction fans read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction.

Retailers and publishers are beginning to analyze this information to better understand how readers engage with books and how to reach out to those readers more effectively.  

So here’s the question: is tracking this information so bad?

Privacy advocates think so, arguing that the tracking flies in the face of basic intellectual privacy.

“There's a societal ideal that what you read is nobody else's business,” Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the WSJ.

Others note that we’ve already ceded control for how information is gathered and shared, and we don’t yet know how companies will use this information. Might folks who download books on terrorism or read Arab literature come under scrutiny of Homeland Security, as one German publication asked?

Some industry watchers, however, aren’t so concerned.

“This is information that I'm glad I know, but about which I'm afraid I can't get all that exercised,” wrote a blogger with the UK’s Guardian. “I feel there are bigger things to worry about than whether Kobo knows what page of Fifty Shades (no, not really) I'm currently on... And if... it means these companies can better point me towards things I might like, then I'm not complaining.”

We’re curious to hear what you think. Is this a little too Orwellian for you? Or is the book industry simply catching up with what the entertainment industry has done for decades, tracking consumer tastes and preferences?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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