After Hours

eReaders: They're reading us while we read them

Your Kindle, therefore Amazon, knows more about your reading habits than you do. Is that something you want? Michael Kassner looks at eReaders and privacy issues.

Once a month I meet with a group of post high-school educators; we're aspiring writers looking to create the next great novel. How are we doing? Time's running out. I'm the only one who's not naturally gray, and that's because I'm bald. A few weeks ago, I arrived to a lively discussion, or heated debate, depending on your point of view about a new teaching aid.

As the only non-teacher, I preferred chatting with the owner of the coffee shop, discussing the intricate nuances of the espresso she made for me. Mid-sentence, I swore I heard "Orwellian overkill." Nah, I'm the conspiracy nut — then "Big Brother" drifted by.

Remembering my manners, I politely but quickly excused myself, wanting to enter the fray. My luck, the group decided to drop the subject and get down to earnest writing. As I alluded to earlier, we have a time crunch.

CourseSmart Analytics

I made a mental note to find out what could get my friends so stirred up. Afterwards, I found out the discussion was about a new teaching utility called CourseSmart Analytics:

A unique offering that effectively measures student engagement with digital course materials. Our CourseSmart Engagement Score Technology and easy to use analytics dashboards offer institutions and faculty powerful visualization tools for understanding how students are engaging with their course content.

A little Orwellian, but not enough for me, I continued my search. The next interesting link brought me to an Oxford University Press essay by Professor Dennis Baron"The e-reader over your shoulder". Now we're talking. The article touched on CourseSmart Analytics, and then quickly moved to discussing eReaders and the consequences of using them. After reading Professor Baron's essay, I saw the need to pass on his concerns about eReaders and privacy.

In tracking down Professor Baron, I got quite a surprise. I visited what I thought was Professor Baron's Twitter site (@DrGrammar), and came across the picture at the right. Was Dr. Grammar also Professor Dennis Baron? They're both located in Illinois.

This was getting interesting. I emailed Professor Baron/Dr. Grammar, and the current Dennis Baron responded with this explanation:

The picture is from 1979, on the Staten Island Ferry! The aviator glasses should date it pretty well, and oh yes, the hair.

Sure another gray-haired gentleman — where are all the bald guys? Next, I asked the professor for his opinion on CourseSmart Analytics. I figured to really impress the group at our next meetup.

Kassner: In the essay, you asked if CourseSmart Analytics was an example of interactive digital education or snooping. Then you answered snooping. Why? Dr. Baron: Mostly because instructors monitoring their students' reading introduces a creep factor. And it presumes a correlation between reading the assignment, reading speed, and course success, and I'm not sure that correlation is valid, or valid enough to warrant that kind of intrusive monitoring. It seems to me there are more effective ways to assess students (homework, tests, papers) without looking over their shoulders while they work.

That explains why my friends were hotly debating the pros and cons of CourseSmart Analytics. Now I'd like to get to the meat of the professor's article — eReaders.

eReaders and Privacy

Kassner: Professor Baron, the next quote is from your essay:

We expect our reading to be private. Librarians will risk jail rather than tell government snoops what their patrons are reading, because the right to read unobserved is a fundamental component of the right to privacy. But when a vendor like Apple or Amazon tracks our reading matter, we don't invoke Big Brother. Instead, we're more complacent, accepting this intrusion on our literary solitude because that's how capitalism is supposed to work.

What you talk about is something that's baffled me since I began writing about digital privacy: Why do you think that is? Could it be people just do not realize it's happening?

Dr. Baron: Most people don't know it's happening, along with not realizing they don't own the e-books they download to their Kindles and iPads, and those who do are willing to trade that bit of privacy for the convenience and economy of e-books. After all, search engines like Google monitor our online behavior in order to monetize it.

Most people don't seem to mind the targeted ads that appear during their web searches or on their Facebook pages, and they probably think of e-book monitoring as more of the same. I wonder, looking at the advertiser's point of view, just how many click-throughs result in a sale?

Kassner: I had to chuckle when you brought up how Amazon secretly removed copies of George Orwell's 1984 from reader's Kindles. I don't think a fiction writer could have written that juxtaposition any better. Could you please expand on what you mean when you say we do not own the books we download? Dr. Baron: Most ebooks are covered by a rental agreement or Digital Rights Management (DRM). And it's not the same as buying a book outright. Although the content of a book we buy still belongs to the copyright holder (typically the author or publisher), we can do what we like with the physical book: sell it, give it away, loan it to a friend, even use it as a doorstop.

We are also free to copy parts of it (within the guidelines of fair use) for our own use, to quote in a review, to post on Facebook, and so on. DRMs limit our ability to use the physical text, and they may be revoked any time we violate the use agreement.

Revocation means the ebook can be taken back by the lessor. It also means your access to other services of the lessor may be blocked. In plain English, Amazon or Apple can block your access to your Kindle books or iBooks, and close your account. In contrast, all a library can do if you don't return your library book is fine you. It can't send the library police to break into your house and take the book off your nightstand.

Kassner: Professor, your point is really driven home by what we see every time we "buy" a Kindle book.

Versus what the DRM mentions:

Dr. Baron: Yes, Kindle's DRM says it all: "You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sub-license, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party." And even though Amazon invites you to "buy" a Kindle ebook, it's the language of the DRM, not the button we click, that governs the transaction: "Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider." Kassner: Finally, Professor, how do you view our privacy as related to digital reading material in the near future? If it's bleak, what would you like to see happen to change that? Dr. Baron: Frankly, for most people, and in most cases, it's not going to be an issue. Yet it troubles me that we are assenting to a system where it could become one.

For example, suppose the government is investigating you. They can subpoena your library records, but those records in most cases are protected, and librarians typically oppose such subpoenas. But digital-content providers typically comply with records requests. So we have a situation where DRM holders monitor our eBook use, advertisers monitor our eBook use, and the government has the potential to monitor our eBook use.

Hence, "the e-reader over your shoulder" really means we are ceding privacy. It's one thing to put a cover on your paperback so fellow-commuters don't see you're reading 50 Shades of Grey, The Bobbsey Twins, or How to Make a Dirty Bomb. But with eBooks, our reading habits become public property in ways we're really not aware of.

Final thoughts

As long as I have been writing about IT security, I've been fascinated by the mantra "Convenience versus Security." I realize the axiom has been around longer than the Internet, but it appears to have more significance today. After talking to Professor Baron, I'm wondering if the axiom needs updating: "Convenience versus Security and Privacy."

I'd like to thank Professor Baron for sharing his insight and making all of us more aware. I also wanted to point out if you are interested in the intersection between language and the digital age, check out the professor's blog The Web of Language.

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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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