EFF Claims Google Book Search, Amazon Kindle Threaten Privacy

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2009-12-22

EFF Claims Google Book Search, Amazon Kindle Threaten Privacy

Consumers mulling whether or not to license book titles through Google Book Search or purchase an electronic reader such as the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook may want to take the privacy policies of those services and devices into account before they do so.

Privacy watchdogs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that while e-reader technologies are a hot item for the 2009 holiday season, the services and devices that let readers access and view digital books threaten consumers' privacy.

Ed Bayley, an adjunct attorney for the EFF, in a blog post Dec. 21 said e-readers collect "substantial information about their users' reading habits and locations" and report back to the companies that build or sell these technologies. To educate users, the EFF created a Buyer's Guide to E-Book Privacy to shed some light on what information existing e-readers "reserve the right to collect and share."

The Google Book Search project is Google's broad effort to scan out-of-print books and offer them to users online for fees. The project is on hold while the search engine and the New York District Court hash out a renegotiation, and won't be finalized until 2010.

However, the current privacy policy for the service allows Google to automatically log each book and page a user of the service searched for and read and how long a reader viewed it for, as well as information about subsequent books a reader searches for. Google Web History also tracks what books users purchased.

The EFF pointed out that this practice is consistent with the way Google logs user information for its core Web search offering, including "query term ... [IP] address, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and one or more cookies that may uniquely identify your browser," it quoted Google's privacy policy as saying. So users who are comfortable with this practice may not have an issue with Google Book Search.

Bayley also noted in the Buyer's Guide that information on Google Book Search users is available to the Book Rights Registry, a not-for-profit group that represents book rights holders, and third-party service providers. Google denied this in a statement sent to eWEEK.

"We will never share individual users' information at all unless the user tells us to, or in some very unusual circumstances that are spelled out in the Privacy Policy, like emergencies or when we receive valid legal process. The Book Rights Registry created under the settlement won't have access to users' personal information, either," the Google statement said.

Kindle and User Privacy

Meanwhile, Amazon.com's Kindle poses a different set of risks. The Kindle licenses books and other content for wireless download through its Kindle Store; the content can only be used on the Kindle to which it was licensed. This means Amazon.com "knows" what books and content a user has licensed.

Specifically, the Kindle's software provides Amazon.com with data about purchases readers make through the Kindle Store, content stored on the device and how licensees used the content.

For example, Amazon.com tracks "automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the device" and backs up users' "annotations, bookmarks, notes [and] highlights," among other information, according to the Kindle License Agreement and Terms of Use as cited by the EFF.

"In other words, your Kindle will periodically send information about you to Amazon," Bayley wrote. "But exactly what information is sent? Amazon's wording-'information related to the content on your device and your use of it'-reads so broadly that it appears to allow Amazon to track all content that users put on the device, regardless of whether that content is purchased from Amazon."

Amazon.com did not respond to eWEEK's request for comment. Meanwhile, an Israeli hacker cracked the Kindle's DRM, which means people can take their book content and put it on another device.

Bayley had less to say about the Barnes & Noble Nook, shipments of which have been delayed until January 2010, because the company has not released specific terms of use or a privacy policy for the device.

However, the Buyer's Guide noted that Barnes & Noble logs data on searches made and pages viewed on the company's Website, and tracks book purchases through the membership loyalty program.

Bayley did give some e-readers high marks on the privacy front, noting that Sony's Reader does not track book searches or record information about content users download to the device.

However, it is clear he and the EFF are demanding that Google and Amazon.com rewrite their existing privacy policies.

The EFF prefers that Google not track and store data on Google Book Search users' content consumption, and that Amazon.com be more explicit about what information it does track to let users decide if they are comfortable using the Kindle.

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