Highlighting privacy

Highlighting privacy

It was less than a year ago when Amazon remotely removed a version of 1984 from some customers' Kindles, sparking a storm of privacy protests, and leading to an eventual pay out of $150,000 to settle a lawsuit from angry readers (one of the plaintiffs was Michigan teenager Justin Gawronski who claimed Amazon wrecked his highlighted Kindle copy and thus his homework—he must have been cooking up a killer essay). Now privacy concerns are being raised again about Amazon aggregating customers' text highlights and putting them onto a page on its website called Popular Highlights.

At some level this is a storm in a teacup. The data, Amazon says, does not reveal an individual's preferences, but just totes up top highlights in much the same way that it would show bestsellers. Still, you can see why this has touched a nerve; the notion that you are highlighting a passage in a book that is special to you, and now is part of Amazon's vast database seems a bit, well, creepy.

Digital books give publishers the power to mine data like never before. Enhanced Edition's Peter Collingridge has talked and blogged extensively about anonymous apps analytics and the way one can get granular detail about reader usage—down to such things as what hour of the day apps are read, and for how long. 

The trade needs to tread carefully here, and needs to be completely upfront to readers about what, and how, they are grabbing information. Amazon's current problem is it seems to be doing it on the QT (though to be fair to Amazon, it does mention that highlights will be aggregated on its Kindle forums). The public are savvy enough to realise that leaking some personal data is part and parcel of modernity if you choose to sign up to consumer products—I shudder to think what the Nectar Card folk could glean from my purchases about my life. But books somehow are far more personal than groceries. Even when the data extracted is fairly anonymous, such as in Amazon's case, or completely so, as with Enhanced Editions, not being transparent is bound to raise readers' hackles.