Spyware in Amazon Kindle?

It has been reported that Amazon has included a spyware like feature in their Kindle ebook reader which reports back to Amazon on users reading habits. For example, if you highlight some text Amazon collects that information and shares it with other Kindle users.

That seems both creepy and unethical.

Creepy because we do not expect our books to spy on us.   Unethical because Amazon seem to be violating their users privacy for the purposes of commercial gain. They say they provide the information on highlighted text for the benefit of Kindle readers. That is disingenuous. Kindle could collect information on reading habits that could be of enormous commercial value to Amazon [see below].

Amazon has already been in trouble when they remotely deleted a book [the book was 1984 by George Orwell] from customer's Kindles  without asking  permission. When that caused a storm they promised they would be good in future. Apparently, they had their fingers crossed when they made that promise.

Paul Lamere wrote a fascinating post about the kinds of information that can be captured by an ebook reader. For example, he suggests that a Kindle could send the  following  back to Amazon.
  • Most Abandoned - the books and/or authors that are most frequently left unfinished.  What book is the most abandoned book of all time? (My money is on ‘A Brief History of Time’) A related metric – for any particular book where is it most frequently abandoned? 
  • Pageturner – the top books ordered by average number of words read per reading session.  Does the average Harry Potter fan read more of the book in one sitting than the average Twilight fan?
  • Burning the midnight oil – books that keep people up late at night.
  • Read Speed – which books/authors/genres have the lowest word-per-minute average reading rate?   Do readers of Glenn Beck read faster or slower than readers of Jon Stewart?
  • Most Re-read – which books are read over and over again?  A related metric – which are the most re-read passages? 
  • Mystery cheats – which books have their last chapter read before other chapters.
  • Valuable reference – which books are not read in order, but are visited very frequently?
  • Biggest Slogs – the books that take the longest to read.
  • Back to the start – Books that are most frequently re-read immediately after they are finished.
  • Page shufflers – books that most often send their readers to the glossary, dictionary, map or the elaborate family tree. 
  • Trophy Books – books that are most frequently purchased, but never actually read.
  • Dishonest rater - books that most frequently rated highly by readers who never actually finished reading the book
  • Most attempts – which books are restarted most frequently? 
  • A turn for the worse – which books are most frequently abandoned in the last third of the book?  These are the books that go bad.
  • Never at night – books that are read less in the dark than others.
  • Entertainment value – the books with the lowest overall cost per hour of reading (including all re-reads)
It is easy to see that publishers would pay a lot to Amazon for this information. It would tell them a lot on what kinds of books to publish and how to set prices.

After the fiasco of the '1984' book deletion I would have thought that Amazon who have set itself higher ethical standards and created a strict privacy policy.  They need to say if any of the information  above is being collected, and what they are doing with it. Who is it being shared with, how long is it being retained and has it been anonymised?

I do not have an ebook reader and incidents like this make it unlikely that I will buy one. I am sure they are very useful, but when I buy a book I want to

1.  Be able to do what I want with it and not have my options restricted by DRM.

2.  Not have it spy on me.

Many Kindle users are concerned about Amazon's conduct and some have expressed fears that information on their reading habits might fall into the hands of governments. Certainly, if the US Government served a  National Security Letter on Amazon they would be obliged to give up the information, and would not be able to tell their customers that they had done so. Even if that is not an issue Amazon appears to be  behaving badly and needs to come clean on what is actually happening.

The EFF has a very good guide to ebook privacy. Most of the companies selling ebooks seem very coy about how they collect, use and share information. Which suggests they have something to hide.

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