E-Books: Who's E-Reading Over Your Shoulder?

Electronic books are a little like flying cars; always right about to catch on. Today the New York Times asks “Could book lovers finally be willing to switch from pages to pixels?” In an interesting piece in Technology, Brad Stone and Motoko Rich interview publishers in an attempt to size this market, concluding that the era of e-books may (finally) have arrived.

Lots could be said on this topic--much praised and much lamented. But we've been discussing a particular angle here at CIS: whether this page to pixel migration might have serious repercussions for reader privacy.

One of the great things about a brick-and-mortar library is the ability to browse topics and titles without leaving a record. Bookstore customers can buy books with cash and leave no trail; library patrons can take comfort in the many state laws prohibiting the unauthorized disclosure of library lending records. These physical and legal limitations help guarantee the long-standing American assumption that reading, like other habits of thought, must be off limits to public or private scrutiny.

As the Stone and Rich piece shows, the way we browse and buy books is changing. Whether it’s purchasing books from Amazon.com, storing books with the My Library function of Google Book Search, or downloading iPhone apps like Stanza or eReader, suddenly someone has a record of the books we browse and buy. It is almost as if a store clerk is running behind us with a little fingerprint kit to capture our curious thumbings.

This means that reader information is at risk. Reports have surfaced for years of attempts by the government to compel booksellers on and offline to turn over records of customer book purchases. In addition to government requests, such records might become available pursuant to a subpoena in a civil law suit or an all-too-common data breach. Meanwhile, and although we have Robert Bork to thank for both state and national laws limiting the disclosure of what videos we purchase or rent, only a small handful of states specially protects against the disclosure by private entities of our reading habits.

I trust and hope that publishers are considering the privacy ramifications of this march toward digital books. (For starters, it would be nice to see to a link to a privacy policy on Google Book Search.) I encourage you, dear reader, to check up that they have.

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