Law and Conversation

December 17, 2010

E-readers and privacy

Filed under: Books and writing,judiciary,Law,legal technology,privacy,reading,Technology — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:58 am
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No matter how much you love your old-fashioned paper books, it’s hard not to own up to a few little covetous twinges when you see people with Kindles or sleek iPads.

Students who download their texts on e-readers must love not having to carry around the extra weight of traditional texts.  They must also find being able to highlight, underline, or make notes in their e-books, as the Kindle application permits, incredibly convenient.  Those who commute or travel also love their e-readers, for the same reasons.

But those capabilities have legs which give e-readers a creepiness factor.  I took note some months ago of Gretchen Rubin’s post advising that if you download a book on a Kindle and highlight or take notes, the device reports back to Amazon about your highlighting or notetaking.  NPR now picks up on the issue by reporting on other data that’s transmitted back to Amazon, or Google, or Apple, or whatever other company manufactured your e-reader or the application you use.  Those companies know, or have the capability of knowing, when you read, when you stop reading, where you were while you were reading, and whether you read the whole book or stopped at page 45. 

This information may prove immensely useful to businesses who want to sell more products to consumers, of course.  But what might a government inclined to monitor its citizens’ activities closely do with information about people’s thought processes, I wonder?  Might the government of, say, China require all university students to use e-readers that report students’ reading habits and notetaking back to it, I wonder?

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog reported that at least two justices of the U.S. Supreme Court read briefs on their e-readers, as do an increasing number of judges on lower courts.  What if those judges highlight or underline the arguments of counsel?  Do the e-reader applications they use report that data?  What implications for judicial decisionmaking does that carry?

Of course, data about individuals’ browsing habits is already stored in multiple locations on different computers and servers.  When in doubt, you can assume that online publications generally know your IP address, which articles you’ve clicked on, and other information about you.  If you buy books online, or in a store using a credit card or frequent buyer program, there’s a record of the books you’ve bought.  If you check books out of a library, there’s a record.  Bottom line:  we trade our privacy for what electronic devices, applications, and the internet offer.

NPR quotes Stephen King on the data collection issue as follows:  “Ultimately, this sort of thing scares the hell out of me,” King says. “But it is the way that things are.”

In related news, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held this week that citizens have the same expectation of privacy in their e-mails as in their snail mail letters and phone conversations, so that the government must obtain a search warrant before seizing and searching e-mails held by private e-mail providers.  Hat tip for this and the WSJ Law Blog item:  Ed Walters of FastCase.

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May 18, 2010

Big Brother monitors the Internet, and Kindle readers, too.

In my cover story in the April 2010 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, “The Internet:  Your (Mostly Free) Private Investigator,” I wrote about lawful methods of finding out information about people over the Internet.  As usual, I had incredibly knowledgeable, interesting sources who also happen to be very nice people:  two Chicago litigators, Todd Flaming and Kent Sezer, and an Alton, IL police computer crime detective, Mike Bazzell, who also presents on computer crime and internet safety issues.  The article’s directed to lawyers who have a need for finding out everything they can about their opposing parties, witnesses, and, in some cases, their own clients, but I think anyone reading it would find the information in it useful and interesting.

Since my article was published, some new developments highlighting the lack of privacy and what you can find out about other people on the Internet have been reported. 

First, PCWorld magazine’s blog, like other publications, reports on the multiplicity of clicks and menus that you have to go through on Facebook if you want to lock down your privacy settings.  Anyone on FB who cares about privacy probably already knows what a time-consuming pain in the neck it is to make sure all of your settings are adjusted to your satisfaction, but the article also refers to a free tool I was unaware of at zesty.ca to verify what, if any, information from your Facebook account is available to anyone. 

Parenthetically, every time Facebook tweaks its information sharing policies, I think about deleting my own account.  I haven’t because I really like FB for making it easy and efficient to get back in touch and stay connected with friends, especially those I may not be able to see much, as well as for providing an avenue to get to know people better.  I resolve my feelings about the data-sharing issues by never posting anything that I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing on the front page of the Chicago Tribune tomorrow.  The Zesty tool is useful for double-checking whether you’ve got your settings properly adjusted.

Second, I recently learned of a new site that aggregates publicly available information about people:  Spokeo.com.  I must say that it’s a pretty good site!  But I wonder where it gets some of its information.   Among the information about me on the site was that I love to read; I’ve put that information out there myself, and I’m perfectly happy for people to know that fact about me.  The site also reported that I’m not interested in politics and I have a high school education.  Where did the site get the former information, I wonder?  It’s not quite true, though, indeed, I don’t generally enjoy political discussions and don’t volunteer my political views (though when asked, I have been known to answer).  The latter information also isn’t accurate:  I certainly do have a high school education, but I didn’t stop there!  And I only wish the site’s vastly inflated estimate of the value of my home were correct. 

Though none of Spokeo’s information about me was exactly offensive, I found it disconcerting to have this (not entirely accurate) data compiled about me as a virtual dossier, so I removed it by clicking on the site’s Privacy link and filling out the form.  I realize, of course, that other aggregator sites will still maintain such dossiers and that there’s not much any of us can do about it.  If you want to know what Spokeo has on you, hie yourself over to the site, plug in your name, and take whatever action you wish after doing so.

Third, and most unsettling to me, was some news about the Kindle:   Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project learned that Amazon is looking over your shoulder as you use the device.  She writes “It turns out that Amazon keeps track every time someone highlights a passage from a book on a Kindle! Yes, if you’ve highlighted a sentence on your Kindle, Amazon knows.” 

I don’t own a Kindle or want one myself, but the people I know who have them love them.  I can understand why:  it’s light, fits in a handbag, and if you’re an expat in a country where bound books in your language aren’t readily or economically available, like one family I know, it’s the perfect solution.  It seems to me it would also be great for students to use instead of having to lug around heavy and costly textbooks, especially since the device enables highlighting.  But I’d hate to have a Big Brother logging my highlightings or annotations–it’s way too much like having someone peering into your very thoughts.  Also, I can remember some pretty callow comments I made in the margins of some of my college texts, and I wouldn’t want anyone reading them and thinking I’m still so naive!

Speaking of The Happiness Project, it’s a lovely site, written by another lawyer mom who wrestles with many of the same issues I do–do check it out!

May 12, 2009

Ruth Reichl’s memoirs

Filed under: Books and writing,memoirs — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:09 am
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Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl’s first memoir, “Tender At The Bone,” has been percolating up toward the top of my Want To Read list since it was published ten years ago.  Just a couple of weeks ago, she came out with a new installment, “Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way.”  Lauren Porcaro’s interview with Reichl on the New Yorker’s “The Book Bench” blog at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2009/05/the-exchange-ruth-reichl.html  caught my eye.  Some excerpts that I found particularly noteworthy follow:

 “My mother started out by being a very good girl. She did everything that was expected of her, and it cost her dearly. Late in her life she was furious that she had not followed her own heart; she thought that it had ruined her life, and I think she was right. One of mom’s greatest acts of generosity was that she trained me to be defiant. Her great gift to me was encouraging me to be the person that I wanted to be, not the one that she and my father wished I was.”

 Asked about Twitter as a public diary:  “[P]rivacy is overrated. My mother’s scraps of paper were shouts into the void, and I think she would have been much happier if she could have sent them into the world instead of sticking them in a box. We all want, very much, to be seen and understood.”

“We need to accept the fact that most families now have two working parents…. We need to understand that women should not have to choose between their children and their careers, and that the current way that works—forcing women to become Superwomen—is another kind of trap.”

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