How Amazon tracked my last two years of reading

From The Guardian:

When I requested my personal information from Amazon this month under California’s new privacy law, I received mostly what I expected: my order history, shipping information and customer support chat logs.

But tucked into the dozens of files were also two Excel spreadsheets, more than 20,000 lines each, with titles, time stamps and actions detailing my reading habits on the Kindle app on my iPhone.

I now know that on 15 February 2019 starting at 4.37pm, I read The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish – a dark novel by Katya Apekina – for 20 minutes and 30 seconds. On 5 January 2019 starting at 6.27pm, I read the apocalypse-thriller Severance by Ling Ma for 31 minutes and 40 seconds. Starting at 2.12pm on 3 November 2018, I read mermaid romance tale The Pisces by Melissa Broder for 20 minutes and 24 seconds.

And Amazon knows more than just what books I’ve read and when – it also knows which parts of them I liked the most. On 21 May 2019 I highlighted an excerpt from the third installment of the diary of Anaïs Nin, the data shows, and on 23 August 2018 at 11.25 pm, I highlighted an excerpt from Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. On 27 August 2018, I changed the color of a highlighted portion of that same book.

Other habits tracked included the times I copied excerpts from books into my iPhone’s clipboard and how often I looked up definitions of words in Kindle’s attached dictionary.

I already understood Amazon tracks our purchases on its site, our activity across the web, our voice commands, our grocery shopping and our locations. But the extensive tracking of my reading habits – my most beloved and previously offline hobby – was jarring. Who is this information shared with, what is done with it, and how can it affect my privacy – and the future of the reading experience itself?

Amazon says it does not share what individual customers have highlighted with publishers or anyone else, a spokeswoman said. The highlights are logged to sync reading progress and actions across devices, she said. Aggregated data is used to show which parts of books have most frequently been highlighted, as Kindle customers can see while reading. It does say the data is used “to provide customers with products and services, pay content providers and improve the reading and shopping experience”, the spokeswoman said.

From my reading history, which included books on self-help and mental health, Amazon could easily make inferences about my personal health, career and hobbies. 

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG is not surprised when he’s tracked across the internet. If he were concerned, he would simply use the Incognito browser mode and/or a VPN that connected him in a different place or use more than one ID/PW combination. For a few years, PG used a browser setting that automatically erased stored cookies every time he shut down the browser, but stopped because it was more convenient not to sign into every website he regularly visited. Google and a variety of other free email providers seem happy for PG to create and use as many email addresses as he desires and there are a variety of browsers available at no charge – Tor, the Epic Privacy Browser and the Iridium Browser, for example.

PG suggests the large majority of internet users value convenience over privacy, but if the author of the OP really wanted privacy, it’s not hard to make it quite difficult for someone to follow her around the Internet. If she’s really concerned about keeping the details of her reading private, she could go back to hardcopy books purchased through a physical bookstore. Used hardcopy books are a less-costly option.

With his legal hat on, PG will note that Amazon doesn’t keep what it records and retains about users of its software and services any sort of secret – Here are Amazon’s Kindle Store Terms of Use, Kindle E-reader and Fire Tablet Terms of Use, and Amazon’s Privacy Notice.

PG notes that the Kindle Store Terms of Use explicitly provide that “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”

Google operates in the same way. Here’s a link to Google’s Terms of Service and Privacy Policies.

Perhaps PG missed it, but he doesn’t recall the OP saying anything about the fact that the author agreed to these sorts of terms of service when she signed up for Kindle books and effectively reiterated her agreement to those terms each time she signed on. PG doesn’t recall that the OP indicated the author had ever read any of the Terms of Service/Use or that Amazon had ever violated its agreements or commitments.

The simple fact is that 21st century online commerce of any sort means agreeing to some form of ToU, ToS, etc. The New York Times has them, The Washington Post has them, NBC, CBS and ABC have them.

PG checked on the website of The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and she has a Privacy Policy that discloses the kinds of information her office collects and maintains.

3 thoughts on “How Amazon tracked my last two years of reading”

  1. This reinforces my eccentric preference for dead-tree editions! I would find it really creepy to have my reading habits tracked like that. (Which probably dates back to my years in a Christian school where I was shamed for reading sf and horror…)

  2. I wonder if the OP expects Amazon to work its Kindle magic (like syncing last read position, highlights, and such between devices) without any tracking?

    OK, maybe Amazon keeps too much information, and keeps it too long, but a certain amount of detailed tracking is necessary for Kindle convenience.

  3. Let’s face it. Everything you do on the network is recorded and stored somewhere. Terms of Service may limit how the information is used and who gets to see it, but you have to recognize that your data is out there, stored, and almost certainly will be stored for a long time, effectively forever.

    Humans are what they are. Rogue employees leak information, criminals steal it. Companies go south and their data is transferred to folks who may not be as fastidious as the original collector. Governments change: what is protected one day may not be protected the next.

    For me, the only realistic assumption is that digital lives have become an open book.

    However, I profoundly hope that the right to see and correct misinformation will become sacrosanct. A few years ago, I checked our credit record and discovered that a bill we had paid was recorded as unpaid. Probably because we moved and our payment was not properly recorded. We informed the credit bureau and our credit rating rose a few points. I hope that mechanisms like that will be preserved for our entire digital record.

    As long as the possibility of correction is present, I can tolerate a lot of stored information on me.

Comments are closed.