Law in the Internet Society


The E-Reader Privacy Invasion

-- By EdwardBontkowski - 31 Dec 2009

The E-Reader Explosion

Often in class, Professor Moglen threw out interesting hypotheticals to gauge our concern regarding various privacy issues. One of the most interesting privacy hypotheticals he posed was whether we would agree to a deal in which we could read anything we wanted for free as long as we allowed the things we read to be tracked by the provider. While I expected answers supporting both sides, what truly struck me was how close (and quickly) our information technologies are getting to the proposed hypothetical. What I thought was a hyperbolic hypothetical meant to demonstrate was actually, I realized, a point which Moglen thinks we will cross in the near-future. If the current trend in “e-reader” technology is any indicator, we are not far off from such a point.

“E-readers” or “e-book readers” are portable devices used to display e-books. While e-books were a relatively new concept rising to popularity in the mid-90’s, today e-readers themselves are one of the hottest and fastest growing pieces of technology. While e-reader devices existed at the end of the 90’s, it was not until the use of e-ink by the Sony Reader in 2006 that the industry really started to take off. Shortly thereafter, Amazon came out with the “Kindle” in 2007 and the e-reader craze was officially ignited. In just over 2 years since its release, the Kindle has become the most gifted item on More astonishing, however, is the fact that Christmas Day 2009 marked the first time that e-book sales surpassed print book sales.

The Privacy Invasion

However, depending on the type of e-reader you own, all this electronic convenience may be coming at an extreme cost to privacy. The Amazon Kindle, Google Books, and Barnes & Noble Nook are the greatest privacy offenders. All three of these devices can keep track of your book searches. Much like other Google services, Google logs all search data with your IP address as well as your Google Account. Just as they do with their main sites, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble track data on books you view and also associate the information with your respective accounts for each site. All three also track all of your purchases made with the e-reader, as they require that you be logged in to your account to be able to make a purchase. Google Books’ tracking capabilities are especially offensive to privacy. In addition to the aforementioned capabilities, Google Books can track each book you read, what page in that book you read, and even how long you viewed it for. It doesn’t stop here, though. The newest Kindle (along with the Nook) comes with wireless capabilities, and Amazon certainly gives itself incredibly broad control over the information it wirelessly collects from you. The Kindle license agreement uses vague language such as “device … will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service…and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it”. Several internet forum groups have even suggested that the wireless connections allow Amazon to establish the GPS locations of people using Kindles.

These same tech-savvy forum members have found ways to avoid the brunt of the privacy assault attempted by the Kindle by disabling the offending code. However, your average user does not have the knowledge to attempt such workarounds. In fact, the root of the problem is that you average user doesn’t even realize that their e-readers are even capable of such egregious privacy invasion to begin with. “After all,” a user may think, “even if Amazon could track my location, why would they want to?” Not surprisingly, none of the companies even attempt to enlighten these customers in simple, straightforward language as to the privacy rights they are relinquishing to these companies through their use of the device. Instead, they prefer to bury such invasions within complicated and vague “Terms of Use” similar to the Kindle one described above.

The Free Software Solution

So, at first glance, it appears that we may be heading directly towards Moglen’s hypothetical world of completely free reading material at the expense of any semblance of privacy. Not so fast, though. There is an alternative. Just as much as the free software movement is dedicated towards the “free” aspect of software, it is equally as dedicated to conserving the privacy of the users of software. As we have seen in other areas throughout the semester, the solution to this e-reader privacy issue already exists via free software. In this case, “FBReader”. FBReader is free software that allows the user to download e-books (from a large array of file formats) for use on their computer or mobile device. A key difference between FBReader and the commercial e-readers is that, because it is distributed under the terms of the GNU GPL, it does not track or monitor any information relating to what the user is reading. Because of the GNU GPL, FBReader is the safest e-reader with which to read e-books. Moreover, because FBReader is just free software, with no hardware strings attached, ANY ebook format can be read on ANY device running a free software operating system. Therefore, FBReader truly allows for a completely universal, shareable way to maintain electronic libraries. Despite direct support for Digital Rights Management ("DRM"), DRM can be removed by other free software to become readable by FBReader.

In any case, given that it is this very proprietary-oriented infrastructure that likely causes these e-reader privacy problems (not to mention all sorts of other problems) to begin with, it would make little sense for free software to directly support a format such as DRM. And that is truly what is at the heart of all privacy issues. Proprietary software incentivizes the owner to invade the user’s privacy. Without things like the GNU GPL, companies can continue to insert ridiculously vague terms of agreement that allow for complete breach of privacy. In a world fast approaching Moglen’s hypothetical, this nearly limitless ability to monitor and track software users will become a pervasive and dangerous force. We must remember that free software not only provides a means to make software truly free, but also the means to make it truly private.



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r6 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:43:58 - IanSullivan
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