Who's watching what e-books you read?

Your reading habits are a matter of great interest to Amazon, Google, BN, et al

When you were a child, your parents and teachers kept track of what you read. They encouraged you to read more things you didn't want to read and fewer things you did want to read. And they probably looked over your shoulder and rifled through your backpack ... just to be sure.

Now that you're a grown-up, you can read whatever you want. But that doesn't mean no one is looking over your shoulder or rummaging through your library. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Each year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a privacy group, studies the  tracking and data-sharing practices of major e-book distributors like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Google.  It's not an easy task, as each company has multiple license agreements, privacy policies and other legalese-encumbered documents that must be found and deciphered.

As in years past, EFF this year finds the distributors' policies "frustratingly vague and long-winded" but it's pretty easy to sum up the findings: you have a lot less privacy reading e-books than reading "real" books you find in a library or bookstore.

A free country

You may think this doesn't matter, and perhaps it doesn't. If your reading consists largely of how-to books, maybe you don't care if you wind up on all kinds of lists that mark you as someone who might be in the market for a box saw or a slow cooker.

If, on the other hand, you are a gun enthusiast or a student of muslim culture or--let's say--one who enjoys reading slightly salacious fiction, you may not want this information shared with anyone and everyone.

It's a free country, as they say, and most of us are accustomed to thinking that, thanks to those inalienable rights and all that, we can say, think and read just about anything we want without worrying very much about what others think. It's a little hard to change this thinking since it's what we grew up with and still enjoy in many aspects of everyday life.

You can, after all, walk into any bookstore that has somehow managed to stay in business, pay cash for any book you want and walk out without anyone knowing what you have purchased or looked at. Libraries are almost as secure, as librarians are rabid, in their own mild way, about protecting their patrons' privacy.

Opaque. Unclear too

Ah, but browse for a book on Google and it will log your IP address and, if you are logged into your Google account, will associate the search with your account, EFF reports in its annual round-up of bookseller spying practices

Or go traipsing through the virtual stacks at Amazon and it will--as Amazon so melodiously puts it--log data "on products viewed and/or searched for."  As we all know, Amazon will then immediately begin making bone-headed suggestions based on superficial characteristics of your recent searches. You know, novels about one-armed detectives in Oklahoma.

Barnes & Noble's policies are even more opaque. It "probably" does not record searches made on the Nook and does not say if it records searches made by logged-in customers, EFF found. 

Nearly all the booksellers surveyed by EFF were unclear about what they do without browsing data they acquire from other sources. 

Other sources? Oh, you know, those consumer profilers who follow your every step on the Web and add it to all the other information they have on you. 

Maybe none of this matters to you. After all, 1 in 5 of us already have e-books and probably the rest of us soon will have. You don't have to be a big reader to find yourself with an e-reader--you're more likely to get a Kindle or a Nook than a necktie this holiday season, so while sipping egg nog around the fire, you might want to meditate on your privacy policy and see how it meshes with the privacy policies of the Amazons and Googles of the world.

It might be enough to send you dashing to the library when it opens on Dec. 26.   

Want to know more? See EFF's 2012 Reader Privacy Chart here

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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