May 11, 2010 at 9:00 AM ET
As the battle of e-book readers heats up, Amazon is trying to beat the competition by continually adding new features to its Kindle product. But some privacy experts say that one Kindle gizmo tucked into a new software upgrade goes too far.
Readers of old-fashioned dead-tree books often like to underline or highlight passages they find particularly meaningful, or scribble notes for later reference. All e-book readers offer an electronic equivalent of such note-taking. But Kindle users who highlight passages will now have a record of those highlights sent back to Amazon servers, where they will be compiled and sorted to help produce a new feature called "Popular Highlights."
The results are undeniably intriguing. Anyone can view the most popular passages of all time (currently a section from Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers") or the most highlighted books (Dan Brown's "Lost Symbol" is first; "The Holy Bible" is second). Meanwhile, Kindle owners who buy e-books can use a nifty option that lets them see which sections were selected by other Kindle readers.Amazon does not reveal preferences of individual users. Only passages highlighted by three or more users are included.
Still, Larry Ponemon, who runs privacy consulting firm The Ponemon Institute, said some users will bristle at the notion that Amazon can track which passages they highlight while reading. The feature "definitely steps over the line," he said.
"From a privacy point of view there's a creepiness factor," he said. "Reading is one of those things that is very personal, something you do in your own space. How you read and what you emphasize is really important to people.” He compared the service to a Web site that tracks users’ surfing habits with even more precision than is available today.
"It's as if they aren't just tracking what I'm watching but what I'm focusing on when looking at the screen," he said.
Ponemon, himself an avid Kindle user, said it "would definitely change my behavior," and he will consider not using the highlight feature.
It's possible Kindle users are unaware that they are contributing to the "popular highlights " feature, which launched quietly to some users who downloaded the latest version of Kindle software beginning last month. Popular Highlights is turned on by default.
Users are told of the new feature through "forum posts, help pages, and when we release new software to the device," said Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener. The new Kindle software will be deployed widely "in the coming weeks," he said.
Herdener denied that the new service raises any privacy issues with consumers, comparing it to the popular "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought..." feature on Amazon.com.
"In both cases the data is aggregated to show the popularity of a given item or in this case passage," he said. "The response from customers has been very positive. They are finding popular highlights to be fun, interesting, and helpful."
Users can opt out of participating, but only if they disable a feature that automatically backs up notes and highlights. Herdener would not comment on how many users had turned off the notes and highlights backup feature.
On a Web site named Kindleboard.com, devoted to Kindle fanatics, some users complained that they were being forced to pick between participating in popular highlights or losing their notes due to a system crash or lost device.
But other Kindle users say they like the new feature and trust Amazon to protect the anonymity of the information.
Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said he thought the new Amazon feature was "concerning."
"There are a lot of sensitive things people might read on a Kindle book," he said. America has a long tradition of carefully guarding the privacy of reading -- special laws govern the release of library records, for example, he said.
"Librarians have been on the forefront of protecting people's privacy," he said. "This is an interesting paradigm change here, if electronic delivery of books becomes the norm. What is going to happen to this strongly held belief that what you read is entirely a private matter?"
Even though the data is presented anonymously, a database of reading highlights could be a treasure trove for law enforcement. Officials would be able to determine the authors of the notes or the users who highlighted a passage by obtaining a court order. The records would also be available to lawyers engaged in civil proceedings, such as divorce cases, Stephens said. For example, the fact that a spouse had highlighted sexual passages in books could become an issue in a contested divorce, he said.
Even before the advent of Popular Highlights, such legal searches were possible because of the way Amazon backs up notes and highlights.
Despite the privacy concerns, Stephens said he thinks the technology is "terrific," and he would have no problem with it if users had to actively opt-in to participate, rather than be automatically included. But he said he is worried that despites Amazon's efforts to preserve the anonymity of the information, clever statisticians might be able to combine the Amazon information with other data to determine users' identities – a trick that has been employed successfully before with other anonymous data.
Ponemon, who polls Internet users every year in order to rate the privacy reputations of major corporations, said Amazon consistently ranks near the top. So he said he is surprised the firm would risk that trust with the new feature.
"I feel like they missed the boat," he said. "Going from recommended books to this is different. This is something very personal … having an organization like Amazon start looking at reading habits not only at the book level but also at micro levels is actually a pretty serious issue."