Tue December 14, 2010
Digital Life

Is Your E-Book Reading Up On You?

E-books are quickly going mainstream: They represent nearly one out of 10 trade books sold.

It's easy to imagine a near future in which paper books are the exception, not the norm. But are book lovers ready to have their reading tracked?

Most e-readers, like Amazon's Kindle, have an antenna that lets users instantly download new books. But the technology also makes it possible for the device to transmit information back to the manufacturer.

"They know how fast you read because you have to click to turn the page," says Cindy Cohn, legal director at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It knows if you skip to the end to read how it turns out."

Checking Someone's Alibi, Tracking A Device

Cohn says this kind of page-view tracking may seem innocuous, but if the company keeps the data long-term, the information could be subpoenaed to check someone's alibi, or as evidence in a lawsuit.

And it's not just what pages you read; it may also monitor where you read them. Kindles, iPads and other e-readers have geo-location abilities; using GPS or data from Wi-Fi and cell phone towers, it wouldn't be difficult for the devices to track their own locations in the physical world.

But it's hard to find out what kind of data the e-readers are sending. Most e-book companies refer all questions about this to their posted privacy policies. The policies can be hard to interpret, so Cohn and the EFF created a side-by-side comparison. It's just been updated to include Apple's iPad.

The privacy policies also leave important questions unanswered. For instance, how long do the companies store page-view data?

E-Reader Data Collection

Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony declined NPR's request for an interview about e-reader data. But some other companies, including Google and Apple, agreed to take a few questions by e-mail.

Here are some of the responses NPR received regarding data that's being collected by e-readers:

-- Google Books: Google recently started selling e-books that can be read on computers and third-party handheld devices. The company's system appears to save only the last five pages viewed to help the reader keep his place. But Google actually stores more pages than that behind the scenes for what it calls "security monitoring" -- to prevent the "abusive sharing" of books. A Google representative says these page views may be stored with a user's account for "several weeks" before being erased.

-- Apple's iBooks: The system used on iPads and iPhones sends information back to the company. But an Apple representative calls it "functional data." The spokesman says the data is "unidentifiable," and is used only to help Apple "understand customers and customer behavior."

--The FBReader: This free reader from Russia works on a variety of computers and also any handheld device running the Android operating system. It never captures any user data. The open-source programming code means "this fact is easy to check -- anybody can inspect [it]," says Nikolay Pultsin, one of its creators.

Amazon's Dominant Role

Amazon now dominates the e-book market, thanks to its popular Kindle e-readers. And many in the publishing business believe the company has built a vast database about the reading public, using information from the online store and reading data from the Kindle.

"[The Kindle] is just one more string in their bow," says author Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild. "They could tell you with precision the age, the zip codes, gender and other interests of the people who bought my books. Now you can throw on top of that the fact that a certain number of them quit reading at Page 45."

Turow believes Amazon is guarding the database closely and not selling or sharing it with other companies. Publishing consultant Brian O'Leary, the founder of Magellan Media, says that's a lost opportunity. He wishes Amazon were more open about its reading data, which could benefit the rest of the publishing industry.

"If people are buying books but not reading them, or they're quitting after a relatively short period of time reading the book, that ultimately tells you that the customer in this case is dissatisfied," O'Leary says. "Better understanding when people stop reading or stop engaging with your content would help you create better products."

A Future Of 'Social Reading'

Some in the publishing industry look forward to a new age of "social reading," in which devices allow readers to share their reactions with each other. And the author might be interested in seeing a graph of the page-turns of thousands of people as they read his latest novel.

"I wouldn't have a problem with looking, but I would probably ignore what I saw," says author Stephen King. "There's a thing about certain pitchers who all of a sudden can't find the strike zone and are walking a lot of hitters and giving up a lot of hits, and you'll hear the announcer say, 'He's steering the ball.' And writers can do that, too."

But King expects the data will continue to be collected, as book-lovers switch to networked devices.

"Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me," King says. "But it is the way that things are." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.