Loss of Privacy

Keeping you informed on recent losses to privacy and civil rights worldwide.

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There are more than 105 million ereaders and tablets in the United States. Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Google, and Barnes & Noble want to know what your doing with all the purchases you’re making and record every detail. Privacy advocates, however are quick to point out that reading habits should remain private and not something to be analyzed and combed over in an effort to monetize everything we read.

The major new players in e-book publishing—Amazon, Apple and Google—can easily track how far readers are getting in books, how long they spend reading them and which search terms they use to find books. Book apps for tablets like the iPad, Kindle Fire and Nook record how many times readers open the app and how much time they spend reading. Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.

Data collected from Nooks reveals, for example, how far readers get in particular books, how quickly they read and how readers of particular genres engage with books. Jim Hilt, the company’s vice president of e-books, says the company is starting to share their insights with publishers to help them create books that better hold people’s attention.

So, what are they finding out?

It’s no secret that Amazon and other digital book retailers track and store consumer information detailing what books are purchased and read. Kindle users sign an agreement granting the company permission to store information from the device—including the last page you’ve read, plus your bookmarks, highlights, notes and annotations—in its data servers.

Kobo recently found, for example, that most readers who started George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel “A Dance With Dragons” finished the book, and spent an average of 20 hours reading it, a relatively fast read for a 1,040-page novel.

Nook users who buy the first book in a popular series like “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Divergent,” a young-adult series by Veronica Roth, tend to tear through all the books in the series, almost as if they were reading a single novel.

Barnes & Noble has determined, through analyzing Nook data, that nonfiction books tend to be read in fits and starts, while novels are generally read straight through, and that nonfiction books, particularly long ones, tend to get dropped earlier. Science-fiction, romance and crime-fiction fans often read more books more quickly than readers of literary fiction do, and finish most of the books they start. Readers of literary fiction quit books more often and tend skip around between books.

This is all very logical and could be deduced in ways other than spying on its users. It’s not really anything new. It’s just making it easier to get to the end result while compromising readers’ privacy.

Some authors welcome the prospect. Novelist Scott Turow says he’s long been frustrated by the industry’s failure to study its customer base. “I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, ‘I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books,’ and he said, ‘Well, nobody in publishing knows that,’ ” says Mr. Turow, president of the Authors Guild. “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get the information.”

And you can get that information by setting up feedback on your website for users. This is something that is already in place with Amazon, Apple, Google, and Barnes & Noble in their review sections. Now, some states are pushing back on the intrusiveness of tracking ereaders.

Earlier this year, California instituted the “reader privacy act,” which makes it more difficult for law-enforcement groups to gain access to consumers’ digital reading records. Under the new law, agencies must get a court order before they can require digital booksellers to turn over information revealing which books their customers have browsed, purchased, read and underlined. The American Civil Liberties Union and EFF, which partnered with Google and other organizations to push for the legislation, are now seeking to enact similar laws in other states.

Bruce Schneier, a cyber-security expert and author, worries that readers may steer clear of digital books on sensitive subjects such as health, sexuality and security—including his own works—out of fear that their reading is being tracked. “There are a gazillion things that we read that we want to read in private,” Mr. Schneier says.

A regular user would probably avoid certain books if they knew that their reading habits were being tracked. Most users do not want this information shared, but they give in as they see it as their only way to obtain ebooks.

What can you do?

Every device I have encountered required you to connect to a vendor’s server in order to register it and allow its use. Once this happens, they automatically start keeping track of things such as which videos are rented, which magazines you are subscribed to, what websites are visited, and what your searches are about. Once you start reading, they track the last page you read, what text you highlighted, how many bookmarks you made and what they are, and how much time you spent reading a book.

If you don’t want anyone to know this information, there are several things you can do. Use your reader offline. Turn off the wifi. Purchase your books on another computer and transfer them to your reader. You could even stop buying books from these vendors.

Nearly all ebooks sold are encumbered with some type of DRM, which enables the tracking of reader behavior. If you don’t wish to have your reading habits tracked, you need to rip out the DRM. Not only does this future-proof your book from disappearing, it allows you to read your book how and when you want without the fear of anyone looking over your shoulder. Calibre is probably the best program to do this. Not only will it strip the DRM, it can convert to other formats and maintain a list of the books you own.

It is one thing for a company to know what books you buy. It is another thing entirely to delve into how you read them. This is part of the reason why librarians refused to give up checkout histories to the government. With electronic devices becoming more prevalent, we are also seeing the advent of devices that we don’t have any control over. Now is the time to tell every single company from ebook vendors to Facebook that enough is enough. We don’t want to be tracked, we don’t want to be in anyone’s database, and we don’t want advertising shoved at us. If we don’t start acting now, our options to opt out of such tracking will be gone.


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Current legislation makes it illegal for the US government to use propaganda on its own citizens. The House of Representatives, however, has placed an amendment on the defense authorization bill that eliminates this ban.



The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts—the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987—that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government’s misinformation campaigns.

The new law would give sweeping powers to the government to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”

According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.

Clearly, it should now be evident that the US government no longer has our best interests at heart. They are eager to use their propaganda machines on the civilian population in order to sway public opinion in their favor as a means of justifying whatever they want to do.

“Clearly there are ways to modernize for the information age without wiping out the distinction between domestic and foreign audiences,” says Michael Shank, Vice President at the Institute for Economics and Peace in Washington D.C. “That Reps Adam Smith and Mac Thornberry want to roll back protections put in place by previously-serving Senators – who, in their wisdom, ensured limits to taxpayer–funded propaganda promulgated by the US government – is disconcerting and dangerous.”

Critics of the bill point out that there was rigorous debate when Smith Mundt passed, and the fact that this is so “under the radar,” as the Pentagon official puts it, is troubling.

The evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns is part of a larger trend within the diplomatic and military establishment.

In December, the Pentagon used software to monitor the Twitter debate over Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing; another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create “sock puppets” on social media outlets; and, last year, General William Caldwell, deployed an information operations team under his command that had been trained in psychological operations to influence visiting American politicians to Kabul.

Anyone who is paying attention should be deeply concerned by the actions of Congress.

The Pentagon spends some $4 billion a year to sway public opinion already, and it was recently revealed by USA Today the DoD spent $202 million on information operations in Iraq and Afghanistan last year.

In an apparent retaliation to the USA Today investigation, the two reporters working on the story appear to have been targeted by Pentagon contractors, who created fake Facebook pages and Twitter accounts in an attempt to discredit them.

Contractors for the Pentagon are already targeting individual journalists who don’t adhere to their desires. Whilstleblowers are under constant threats. A passage of this bill would elimi9nate any need for the government to tell the truth. At the moment, it is still relatively easy to tell when the media is attempting to spin a news story, providing you aren’t watching FOX News. If the bill passes, the lines between government propaganda and legitimate news will be impossible to differentiate.

This is no a partisan issue either. This is a bill that has support from both sides of the political aisle. Given the fact that the Pentagon already spends $4 billion annually in an attempt to sway public opinion, this bill would allow the Pentagon to utilize that money for propaganda and outright lies. Once the general public is fed enough propaganda it is an easy step to convince Americans to fight and die to “preserve the American way of life.” Those that can’t fight can pay more taxes, buy bonds, and be patriotic to the cause.

The defense authorization bill and its amendments is yet another bill in an ever-increasing line of disturbing ways the government is attempting to legislate control over the general American population. The fact that this information was posted on a Friday proves that the government knows and understands that many Americans and privacy advocates would protest if it had been released earlier in the week. Releasing it at the end of the week ensures that nearly everyone will miss any amendments slipped into the bill.

Fortunately, the Senate version of the bill has dropped the added measure of propaganda.

The version of the defense appropriateions bill that passed through markup in the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday afternoon does not include an amendment to “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda says Glen Caplin, Communicaitons Director for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is a member of the committee.

Even though the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed through Senate committee includes no mention of altering the Smith-Mundt Act, it remains possible for an amendment allowing for domestic propaganda to be introduced on the Senate floor, or added when the House and Senate versions of the bill are reconciled.

It is unclear how much support Thornberry and Smith’s amendment has in the Senate, but it faces some opposition.

“Senator Gillibrand is hopeful this troubling language will remain out of the Senate bill and stripped out in conference committee when the House and Senate bills are reconciled,” Caplin said.

Now is not the time to relax. Call and write your Senators and make sure it stays dropped.

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