Silk Isn’t Enough: Amazon and the Library Book Borrower

Disregarding one’s privacy seems to be the in thing for companies to do today. It seems as if every time I turn around there is another story about another company or government agency ignoring privacy rights. And who can keep up with the constant shifting sands as regards privacy at websites like Facebook? A user needs to hire a full-time privacy protector to track the sand shifts.

And now there is Amazon, yet again. If you recall, I wrote about the privacy problems with Amazon’s new Silk browser (see Privacy in the World of Silk) and now I learn that Amazon, in cahoots with Overdrive, disregards user privacy when Kindle owners borrow books from their local library.

Sarah Houghton, a California librarian and blogger at the Librarian in Black blog, posted this video of her rant regarding Amazon, Overdrive, and privacy. I think everyone should take the time to view and listen to her rant; it is an eye opener, at least for any of us who fought for privacy rights when Congress was working on the “Patriot” Act (and who remember the McCarthy era and its aftermath , including J. Edgar Hoover’s wholesale disregard of citizen rights in the 1960s):

It has been said that the data collection that these companies undertake is really harmless. After all, what can be so bad about Amazon knowing every book you have borrowed from your local library? I find it interesting that these same people who aren’t bothered by corporations gathering our personal data will swarm the battlefront when it is the government that wants to collect the same data. Here is the question:

Why do we think corporations are more benign (or will use collected data about us more benignly) than our own government?

Another question to consider is this:

If our government came knocking on Amazon’s door and demanded that it turn over your library records, how long would it be before Amazon caved to the request?

Amazon and Facebook and other data-gathering companies are not our friend. They collect this data for multiple reasons, but all those reasons are for their benefit not yours. In Amazon’s case, the obvious, apparent, surface reason is so it can encourage you to buy similar books from it. But what prevents Amazon from turning such information over to a group that wants to identify, say, all those whose reading indicates they are opposed to gun ownership or all those whose reading indicates they favor abortion rights or all those whose reading indicates that they are fans of Glenn Beck? After all, Amazon and Facebook’s ultimate guiding principle is money — How would you know whether the antiabortion or progun or Anti-Glenn Beck for President group that is harassing you day and night got your name and information from Amazon?

I know it has been a long time since the HUAC hearings (that’s House Un-American Activities Committee for those of you who do not recall the McCarthy era of the early 1950s), but those days are not so far gone that they should be forgotten. The McCarthy era combined with J. Edgar Hoover’s misuse of the FBI in the 1950s and 1960s are largely responsible for today’s distrust of government. They were the foundations for the destruction of what had previously been a trust of government.

Today, many Americans are not only mistrustful of government but they seek to limit what other people know about them — except, it seems, for the younger generations who seem to find the public sharing of private information to be no problem. I admit I do not understand this lackadaisical approach to personal information on public display, yet it is this approach that companies like Amazon and Facebook are exploiting.

The problem with this lackadaisical approach is that we do not sit down and think through the possible/potential ramifications to our careers or about the effect such personal revelations might have in the future. Just because we think we are invincible doesn’t make it so!

Here’s one thought: Looking to get a job promotion, or perhaps a government job? If you don’t get it, could it be because you are reading the wrong books? Or might it have been that Facebook posting of your recent night on the town?

When government attorneys, citing the Patriot Act, demanded that a library turn over user borrowing information, the library and its librarians fought back. Do you think Amazon or Facebook would defend you and your right to privacy? This is worth pondering as we give up our privacy in exchange for being able to borrow library books using our Kindle.

Interestingly, none of the other ebook devices/companies that provide for library borrowing are reported to collect and use the data — only Amazon. Why? Also worth pondering is under what circumstances could today’s benign use of the gathered data turn nonbenign and when that occurs, what will we be able to do about it?

When we sign up for these services, we agree to a set of rules — terms of service. Yet, as Facebook esecially demonstrates on a near-weekly basis, those rules change with the wind. Today’s forbidden use by Amazon may well be tomorrow’s approved, standard use. And every time we use our Kindle or buy a book from Amazon, we say to Amazon, “I approve of what you are doing to me.”

reposted with permission from An American Editor


  1. Bobby31 October, 2011

    While there are some valid points made here… it is a bit difficult to take anyone seriously when they are wearing a tin foil hat. The message will be heard and digested by a greater audience the hyperbole and scare tactics were toned down a bit. “ZOMG! Amazon and Big Brother are going to put you in Gitmo because you borrowed a book on Bin Laden!!1!one! No one will hire you because you read a book by Anton Le Vey!! 1984! 1984!”

  2. Common Sense31 October, 2011

    This is really just a bit of anti-Amazon paranoia from a librarian. Unlike ePub devices that require Overdrive or Adobe software, when you check out a book for your Kindle, you are actually getting the book from Amazon, NOT from Overdrive. So of course they will have a record of what you checked out, while it is checked out.

    Once you check the book back in, it is removed from your archives and your Kindle.

    Yes, the reminder emails come from Amazon, which makes sense since that’s where the book is checked out from.

    No one actually gets ebooks from their library. They are obtained either from Overdrive or Amazon. The library only manages the queue.

    Since I’ve had a great relationship with Amazon for many years, I trust them far more with my data than almost any other company, including the library.

  3. Shogun1 November, 2011

    Paranoid much?

    Reality is, if you have a Kindle, you know that Amazon keeps track of your puchases. Always have. That’s how they throw together “maybe you’d like to try” lists. Also the notations you make on your Kindle are kept and synch’d across all your devices, another not exactly hidden feature of using a Kindle. Don’t like it? Make notes offline with good old pen and paper. Personally, if I were borrowing a book for a research assignment, and made note on the Kindle, I’d be happy my notes were still available if I had to borrow the book again next month to follow up the assignment (or whatever).

    Further, modern libraries with electronic catalogues will also keep records of what you have borrowed in the past, just like Amazon. Not a lot of difference.

    And privacy? Admittedly this is my own experience, (and hopefully not the norm) but a few years ago, organizers of a reunion were given access to my personal post office box details by the local library, rather than look up my home address in, say, the phone book.

    Seeing as most libraries are funded by the government, I don’t see that details of any kind are any safer with them rather than a corporation.

    This bimbo is spreading a few porkies here, in the name of getting a few more hits on her blog.


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