Reading Analytics and Privacy

Interesting paper: “The rise of reading analytics and the emerging calculus of reading privacy in the digital world,” by Clifford Lynch:

Abstract: This paper studies emerging technologies for tracking reading behaviors (“reading analytics”) and their implications for reader privacy, attempting to place them in a historical context. It discusses what data is being collected, to whom it is available, and how it might be used by various interested parties (including authors). I explore means of tracking what’s being read, who is doing the reading, and how readers discover what they read. The paper includes two case studies: mass-market e-books (both directly acquired by readers and mediated by libraries) and scholarly journals (usually mediated by academic libraries); in the latter case I also provide examples of the implications of various authentication, authorization and access management practices on reader privacy. While legal issues are touched upon, the focus is generally pragmatic, emphasizing technology and marketplace practices. The article illustrates the way reader privacy concerns are shifting from government to commercial surveillance, and the interactions between government and the private sector in this area. The paper emphasizes U.S.-based developments.

Posted on April 27, 2017 at 6:20 AM6 Comments


AJWM April 27, 2017 10:45 AM

The paper confusing acquisition with consumption. Or more specifically, just because I bought an e-book doesn’t mean I read it, and I’ve read plenty of things which I neither bought nor borrowed from a library, or I bought anonymously with cash.

Why buy a book I’m not going to read? Maybe it’s a gift. Maybe after the first chapter it turns out to be crap but it isn’t worth the hassle of returning. Or, as I did recently, I bought several top selling e-books that I have no particular interest in reading, but I was investigating the meta content. (Specifically, these were indie publications, and I was looking at what the authors did to e.g. entice readers to buy the next book, sign up for mailing list, etc.)

On the flip side, I borrow books/magazines from friends, read in the library without checking the book or journal out, and so on.

The approach might be useful for gathering general data, it’s more limited for specifics. Of course, as an author myself I have an interest in the aggregate data (readers who like X probably like Y), and Amazon has that finely tuned, but I don’t care what John Smith or Jane Doe reads.

Of course there are plenty of conspiracy theories which hinge on individual actions being triggered by a particular book or books, so anyone should be wary of assuming too much. (Again, as an author, I read all kinds of strange stuff for research. If I’m suddenly researching ways to dispose of a body, it just means I’m writing a mystery, not planning a murder.)

AJWM April 27, 2017 11:07 AM

And on skimming the paper in more detail, it gets some stuff wrong, although in general there’s not much to argue with.

It talks about Amazon “licensing” e-book contents rather than selling them, and that purchasers are only able to read them on Kindle or through Kindle software, and only if blessed by the mother ship.

This isn’t even true of DRM-enabled e-books (and the DRM is enabled by the publisher, not Amazon; many traditional publishers and most indies don’t bother). Once you’ve downloaded it, it’s yours. Sure, there was at least one case where Amazon “revoked” an e-book for copyright reasons, but if your e-reader didn’t call back to the mothership and resynch, you still have a copy of it. Or if you backed up your Kindle to an external device.

For non-DRM’d e-books, it is trivial (and not a DMCA violation) to convert it to another format — there’s plenty of available software out there to do it (Calibre is good).

Sure, Amazon can (and by default, probably does) track pages read (or at least, flipped to). There’s a reader convenience factor there — I can pick up on my smartphone where I left off on my Kindle, if they’re both staying sync’d. That also enables Kindle Unlimited, where publishers (authors, if they’re indie) get paid by pages flipped to. (Not read — which led to some indies gaming the system by methods to encourage readers to flip to the end of the book early on (for a table of contents, or whatever) to up their “pages read” counts. Amazon has cracked down on that.)

But it’s like browsing the web. Assume anything you do on-line (which includes reading e-books, unless you’re taking special measures) to be monitored by somebody, because the incremental cost of doing so is near nil somewhere along the line.

tyr April 27, 2017 4:28 PM

I recall Mark Blyth saying that by using the
data tracking on ebooks he had discovered
that Pikettys book on economics which was a
big deal at the time was only read eight pages
worth by most ebook owners.

I’m not sure of the value of the information
except to remark that a philosopher of note said
if we don’t read the books which line our book
shelves we are no better than our housecats.

Mark also said it was a good book if you read the
rest of it.

AJWM April 28, 2017 10:00 AM


You can’t even put an e-book on your bookshelf for bragging rights. Must have been an assigned text, those tend not to get read much. 😉

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