We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them. Do you understand that?
-George Orwell, 1984
We are being watched and tracked and Big Brother—the companies, corporation, and capitalistic power—is keeping tabs. Yet, in the land of the free our privacy is being invaded. So yes, Orwell, in the digital age of e-books and publishing, I do understand. I hear you loud and clear.
So often we turn to our devices to escape, especially when wanting to avoid awkward situations with people. I’ve observed the unlocking of an iPhone to avoid a conversation and shamefully, I too, have been at fault for this. Yet, people do this to avoid the world around them and enter a more private one—the Internet and all its glorious treasures. This online sphere allows for a private experience for only you and your eyes. Yet, even though only our eyes are transfixed on our private screens, other eyes are hidden within watching our every move. Carpenter’s article, “Trust, Privacy, Big Data, and e-Book Readers” questions the eyes watching over and tracking our activity in the “private” world of the Internet. More specifically he further examines the tracking of downloaded e-books. In the article he makes the claim that digital updates “address the security flaw of transmitting these data in the clear, ‘allowing anyone who can monitor network traffic (such as the National Security Agency, Internet service providers and cable companies, or others sharing a public Wi-Fi network) to follow along over readers’ shoulder.'” Which leads me to question, is it possible to escape into an e-book without being tracked or monitored? If our thoughts are only what corporations care about in order to advertise and market accordingly, how can we truly make our thoughts and actions private while reading e-books? Is this even possible?
You would think the easy answer to the question would be, “ok then just go to the library and check out a book. You will avoid all advertisements, distractions, and promotional emails barricading your way into the literary world.” Although I, personally, would much rather read from a printed text, e-books are not going away and this invasion of privacy has presented a problem that readers are claiming must be solved. In addition, Carpenter later states readers don’t necessarily know why we are being tracked and what the information is used for. However, in the 2012 article “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition,” Cindy Cohn and Parker Higgins answer these exact questions. In their research they asked seven different questions regarding e-book tracking at Google Books, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Nobel Nook, Kobo, Sony, OverDrive, IndieBound, Internet Archive, and Adobe Content Server. Most importantly they discovered whether or not these companies could monitor what people are reading and how they are reading books after purchase. They also examined whether or not that information could be linked back to you. In addition, could this linkage be conducted if the e-book is obtained elsewhere? Taking a closer look at their charts, both Google Books and Amazon Kindle claimed they do monitor what people are reading and how they are reading books after purchase. Google claims their company “log[s] specific book[s] and page[s] viewed on website. Stores last five pages of each book read. May also track annotations.” Similarly, Amazon Kindle was the only company that also claimed they did this, stating the company “stores last page read and may store annotations, highlights, markings, etc.” With the exception of Adobe Content Server who denied any monitoring of how books are read, all the other companies were unclear in their answers to this question (See Table 1).
As a reader, I had no idea this was happening. In fact, I had no idea it was possible to store a reader’s annotations and ideas. The misconception is seen when purchasing a book. So often, true book lovers will purchase a text with the intent of filling it with their ideas, questions, comments, explorations, and experiences. When these thoughts are inscribed upon the pages, the book transforms. It becomes a storehouse of the reader’s emotions and experiences at that moment. To emphasize, this becomes a private dialogue with the book. When an e-book is purchased, these readers intend to read the book in the same way because that is what they’re used to.
As indicated from the highlighted areas above, all of the companies use vague language except Adobe Content Server. It isn’t reassuring to know that Google Books, Amazon Kindle, and Kobo use the word “may” to indicate whether or not they are able to track annotations, highlights, markings etc. In all honesty, “may” doesn’t answer the question, leaving the reader to become skeptical. In addition, Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Sony, OverDrive, and Indiebound are all “unclear” on whether or not they are able to save annotations and other types of usage from the e-book purchased. In fact, to add to the this uncertainty, IndieBound specifies that they simply do as Google does: “Since the books come through Google Books, which does report information about reading to Google, presumably [the same] will apply.”
The last information I found quite interesting and suspicious was that all but Google Books, Internet Archive, and Adobe Content Server can share information outside the company without the customer’s consent. More specifically, Table 2 outlines with whom our information can be shared.
Which leads me to my next point of realization. How often do I find myself trying to purchase something online and have to accept the “Terms of Agreement?” Quit often. How often do I read the “Terms of Agreement” with a careful eye, specifically looking for how my information will be used? Never. In fact, I never read them. I simply scroll to the bottom of the window and blindly click “Accept.” It seems as if the ways of consent are constructed to benefit the company rather than the consumer. Again, I catch myself asking why? Why do companies construct their methods for consumer consent in misleading and deceiving ways? What purpose does it serve?
As I still try and wrap my mind around how companies are allowed to do this, I keep hearing Orwell’s voice: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them. Now maybe I’m thinking too deeply into this and maybe I’m entering a state of paranoia, but I can’t get passed the idea that quite possibly our reading habits and ideas will change because of greater use with digital e-books. Knowing that there are eyes on the other side with access to our thoughts, is it valid to think that fewer and fewer people will annotate? If it is, then fewer ideas will be explored, and less experiences and emotions evoked through reading will be remembered. Ultimately, the reader’s ideas will not be made real through the use of writing and “jotting down.” As a result of this undoing, ideas will become fleeting moments and vanish.
- Orwell, 1984, 253.
- Carpenter, “Trust, Privacy, Big Data, and e-Book Readers.”
- Cohn and Higgins, “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition.” The following seven questions are examined in article: “Can they keep track of searches for books? Can they monitor what you’re reading and how you’re reading it after purchase and link that information back to you? Can they do that when the e-book is obtained elsewhere? What compatibility does the device have with books not purchased from an associated eBook store? Do they keep a record of book purchases? Can they track book purchases or acquisitions made from other sources? With whom can they share the information collected in non-aggregated form? Do they have mechanisms for customers to access, correct, or delete the information? Can they share information outside the company without the customer’s consent?”
- Cohn and Higgins, “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition.”
Carpenter, Todd. “Trust, Privacy, Big Data, and e-Book Readers.” The Scholarly Kitchen. Last modified October 9, 2014. http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/10/09/trust-privacy-big-data-and-e-book-readers.
Cohn, Cindy and Higgins, Parker. “Who’s Tracking Your Reading Habits? An E-book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, 2012 Edition.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. Last modified November 29, 2012. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2012/11/e-reader-privacy-chart-2012-update.
Orwell, George, 1984. New York: Signet Classics. 1977.