In the real world – when I’m not inhabiting my persona as immortal sex goddess and erotic scribe – I work in computer technology. A few weeks ago, I ran across an informative but alarming article in the Communications of the ACM, a highly respected computer journal, that examined the question of just what information Amazon’s Kindle collects about readers.
According to the authors, Amazon refuses to be specific about what data it captures or how it uses that data. In response to a query to Amazon, the first author of the article received the following response:
Despite the vagueness of this response, the company holds a variety of patents related to the Kindle, which are publicly accessible. The ACM article examines Amazon’s published patents related to data collection. According to these documents, Amazon may access and store information about:
Books you open;
Pages you read;
Annotations, notes, highlights;
Your preferred genres;
Your location (both spatial coordinates and in some cases, type of location), based on GPS and/or network information;
Whether you are moving, standing, lying down, etc. (based on accelerometer output);
The light level;
Your preferred reading complexity level, using Flesch-Kincaid Readability score as a means for evaluating the complexity of a given e-book.
To quote from the patent itself (“CAE” stands for Content Access Event):
For example, the CAE collection module 316 may gather a set of CAEs from access device 104(1) indicating that the "Illustrated History of the Fork" was last displayed on screen two months ago for a period of ten minutes in a landscape presentation mode while on an airplane at an altitude of 31,000 feet and speed of 513 miles per hour. Furthermore, the user only accessed seven pages of material during that time, and at the conclusion of the access, unloaded the content item from local storage on the access device 104(1). All of these factual data points may be captured as CAEs.
Now perhaps you’re thinking, “So what? Nobody has any privacy anymore.” However, the authors of this article point out that under some circumstances, what you’re reading could be very sensitive information indeed. During the McCarthy era in the U.S., people were sanctioned and even imprisoned based on any evidence of Communist sympathies – for instance, a copy of Das Kapital on their bookshelves. According to the analysis of the article’s authors, the information collected by a Kindle could be subpoenaed by any U.S. court without violating precedent and without the meeting the higher bar required to obtain a search warrant.
Given the Islamaphobia common in the U.S., could having a copy of the Koran on your e-reader be construed as evidence of terrorist sympathies? Can you imagine a near future in which reading LGBTQ material could land you in prison? This is the current reality in some countries, including Russia and Poland. What if sexually explicit fiction was judged to violate the law or “community moral standards”? Would you be so cavalier about Kindle’s vacuuming up your reading history under those circumstances?
I find the situation a bit ironic. The advent of ebooks sparked a huge increase in the popularity of romance and erotica, due to the perceived anonymity of e-reading. Without a visible cover or other cues, you can be reading a steamy novel on the train or in a coffee shop, and nobody will know. Unless, of course, you’re reading on a Kindle. In this case, it appears you’ve kissed the entire concept of anonymity goodbye.
You may not be concerned. You may belong to a more “modern” generation that’s accustomed to continuous surveillance and the targeted marketing that goes with it. I’m a dinosaur, I know. I wasn’t about to buy a Kindle anyway. But if I were, this ACM article would certainly give me pause.