Amazon Kindle = Privacy FAIL

9 02 2009

Everyone’s abuzz about the Kindle, Amazon’s handheld reading device that lets users read “what you want, when you want it” by getting books, magazines and newspapers delivered wirelessly in less than 60 seconds. The second incarnation of the Kindle, released today, weights 10.2 ounces and can hold more than 1,500 books. “No longer pick and choose which books fit in your carry-on,” the Amazon site exclaims. “Now you have your entire library with you.”

censorship

Not so fast. Leaving aside for a moment that the Kindle’s very name is weirdly evocative of book burning, consider that for everything we gain with a Kindle—convenience, selection, immediacy—we’re losing something too. The printed word—physically printed, on paper, in a book—might be heavy, clumsy or out of date, but it also provides a level of permanence and privacy that no digital device will ever be able to match.

In the past, restrictive governments had to ban whole books whose content was deemed too controversial, inflammatory or seditious for the masses. But then at least you knew which books were being banned, and, if you could get your hands on them, see why. Censorship in the age of the Kindle will be more subtle, and much more dangerous.

Consider what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital format. The US government, after reviewing the work, determines that certain passages amount to national security threat, and sends Amazon and the publisher national security letters demanding the offending passages be removed. Now not only will anyone who purchases the book get the new, censored copy, but anyone who had bought the book previously and then syncs their Kindle with Amazon—to buy another book, pay a bill, whatever—will, probably unknowingly, have the old version replaced by the new, “cleaned up” version on their device. The original version was never printed, and now it’s like it didn’t even exist. What’s more, the government now has a list of everyone who downloaded both the old and new versions of the book.

Of course, just because a book is printed doesn’t mean it’s safe from government scrutiny. But I know for certain that the copy of Lolita I have on my bookshelf contains exactly the same text now as it did when I bought it from a used book store five years ago, and I’m the only one who knows I have it. Well, and now the entire internet. But you see my point.

I hope this comes off as a crazy conspiracy theory spun by a troubled mind with an overactive imagination. But in an age of no-knock warrants, warrantless wiretaps and national security letters, it’s not too much of a leap to believe that the sanctity of the written word doesn’t matter as much to our leaders as we’d like, and that to move toward exclusively  digital distribution of ideas puts the core of that freedom at unnecessary and unacceptable risk.

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27 responses

9 02 2009
malcontentist

Spot on. They can come get my books from my cold, dead hands.

9 02 2009
Denise Shiffman

That’s why there’s competition (for book readers and digital publishing), twitter, facebook, email and a host of other tools that would make it impossible for the government to “clean up” or completely eliminate someone’s work. There are now dozens of book databases of which digital books are downloaded from (to other readers, iphone, google android phones, etc.) and a number of digital book publishers (including self-publishers). Any blog posts on the book would be indexed in Google and all of the search engines. The government would have to spend a massive amount of resources to eliminate anything from the Web and publicly require Google and other search engines to comply let the world know about the censored material.

9 02 2009
readergirl

excellent and insightful post! we are so quick to give away our privacy. also, i like your take on the name- i never looked at it that way.

9 02 2009
ronbo

Hopefully with the adoption of digital distribution of books, we’ll see a decentralization of publishing power. Like the music publishers, book publishers will see their power shifted to the DIYers.
Any attempts to squelch an idea or thought wouldn’t have the single or few pinch points of the major publishers and would be bound to fail.
If someone prints 100 copies of a book and those are destroyed/confiscated, etc. they are gone, but with digital distribution, there’s an unlimited supply. The bits don’t run out.

9 02 2009
Joe

I hope this comes off as a crazy conspiracy theory spun by a troubled mind with an overactive imagination.

Tick, done.

11 02 2009
manny

i mean surely if we assume a ‘scholar’ is releasing work in ‘digital form’ ‘exclusively’ then this scholar must have some knowledge of internets, maybe s/he even has a blog, which s/he might advertise in his little e-book (new scholar/authors might even insist on being able to do that in their contracts). or, s/he knows someone who has a blog. where this censored work might be published and the censoree’s exposed. and surely the readers of exclusive, digital content have similar levels of web literacy and could inform themselves about any textual tomfoolery.

true censorship is really really hard when it comes to the internet. i thought everyone knew this. lots more stuff has to happen before it becomes anything to worry about.

11 02 2009
Arthur

It’s a lot easier to hide digital content from the government than physical books. I can email censored content around the world in seconds making it impossible for our government or any government to block it out. You can’t burn every copy of a digital work, because you won’t be able to find all of them and they can be duplicated with the click of a mouse. However, the idea of Amazon changing my book(s) wirelessly without permission or notice scares me!

14 02 2009
Chasing the Norm » Blog Archive » Of text old and new

[…] so easily and simply. E-Book’s promise the same potential, but also the possibilities of un-noticed censorship, and the loss of the idea of a first version, first draft, first wayward shot by a young author […]

14 02 2009
tkelc

Considering you can download your Kindle books to your computer as backup, and upload them to the Kindle – without having it be on wireless – via a USB connect – you are pretty safe that what you buy today is the same thing you’ll be reading ten years from now.
I find I am able to read many more books with the convenience of a Kindle than before it. It is also a lot easier to carry around pdfs – like the 9/11 Commission Report (all 700 pages). Newspapers, magazines, books, pdf files, word docs – I can combine my work reading and pleasure reading in one simple device. Documents that I can load on my kindle without going on the ‘net – therefore, still private.
If you’re going to get paranoid – there are plenty of things to get paranoid about without making things up.

14 02 2009
John

Yes but it also makes it harder for any new novelist to every really firmly establish themselves. E-publishing and electronic diffusion of publication is the reason why, despite having just as many if not more talented young writers as in previous periods, we don’t have even one contender for the title of new young writer or the next “Great American Novel.” There are simply too many publication platforms and no one can establish themselves in all of them.

Look at John Updike, who just passed. He got a series of a short stories in the New Yorker, was able to get an agent, and went from there. The same formula worked for Sylvia Beach, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. Today they couldn’t go this route. The older, more established writers monopolize the print media on the notion that new writers can simply use electronic publishing, which actually ensures a smaller audience for them and the inability of new talent to break through on a larger scale. It’s a lose-lose formula. And there are simply no current form of electronic publication that is at all equal, when it comes to scale or range, that can match the old publishing houses. Hence you’re getting the slow death of the novel in all forms.

Make no mistake, electronic publishing will kill not save the novel.

14 02 2009
ronbo

Maybe the novel needs to go, then. (or at least change format.) We’re not watching nickelodeons or gathering around the campfire waiting for the tribal elder to tell us a story either. Delivery methods will/should always evolve.

The music industry has had to suffer through it. No more thinking of Side 1 and Side 2 of an album (what’s an album?). For more and more people, music delivery means MP3 or some other digital format that I can put on whatver device I want and play whenever I want.

Movie industry is coming to grips with the fact that Youtube and Piratebay are eating their lunch. Modern PCs have put the power to create a ‘film’ into the hands of the proles and the Studios have to adapt or become irrelevant.

I wouldn’t think it would be any different with the printed word publishers.

15 02 2009
Maag Library Blog » Information (Im)permanence

[…] road flare, the best reason for maintaining print copies of all types of material is their inherent incorruptibility: Consider what might happen if a scholar releases a book on radical Islam exclusively in a digital […]

15 02 2009
Bokens endelig seier? « Dyade-bloggen

[…] Mer uro her. […]

15 02 2009
I’m back (sort of) « U R B Z E N

[…] the bright side, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog on TheAtlantic.com referred to this post on Saturday. […]

16 02 2009
Long time no post! « Nimish Batra, The Life and Times of

[…] of the authors I follow on twitter is Justine Musk. Who recommended today on twitter a subtle danger of Kindle and other devices and also (vindicating my stance of why I write unintelligible junk on the company internal blogs) a […]

16 02 2009
emma

You have now stirred my conspiracy theory mania to a sufficient level that I should be good for at least a week. Thank you. I am now going to go read a book.

16 02 2009
Arlene Wszalek

Technology tends to leap ahead of society’s ability to accommodate and integrate it, but I do believe as others have commented that with backups, original authors’ original copies, etc., that content can’t and won’t simply disappear.

BTW, and not to take away from your point about 3D books (which I love and cherish as well!), but if you used a credit card to buy your copy of Lolita from a retailer, there is indeed a record of your purchase of that book, which both the retailer and card processor will have.

20 02 2009
22 02 2009
Kindling the Bonfire of History? « NotionsCapital

[…] at UrbZen  points out the downside of the web-based Kindle digital book […]

23 02 2009
Joe

The Kindle is actually quite classy; it’s like a convergence of old school and new school technology

24 02 2009
Anion

Hopefully with the adoption of digital distribution of books, we’ll see a decentralization of publishing power. Like the music publishers, book publishers will see their power shifted to the DIYers.
Any attempts to squelch an idea or thought wouldn’t have the single or few pinch points of the major publishers and would be bound to fail.
If someone prints 100 copies of a book and those are destroyed/confiscated, etc. they are gone, but with digital distribution, there’s an unlimited supply. The bits don’t run out.

And why is this a good thing? So the consumer can spend more and more time wading through piles of unedited, badly-written crap looking for something legible?

Small presses already exist, in the hundreds. In the thousands, in fact. There are quality small presses putting out quality books every day. Their books are in stores. Their books are available online. The idea that only the Big Five get their books in stores, and that any other book is doomed to fail, is demonstrably untrue.

Look at John Updike, who just passed. He got a series of a short stories in the New Yorker, was able to get an agent, and went from there. The same formula worked for Sylvia Beach, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, etc. Today they couldn’t go this route. The older, more established writers monopolize the print media on the notion that new writers can simply use electronic publishing, which actually ensures a smaller audience for them and the inability of new talent to break through on a larger scale. It’s a lose-lose formula.

Again, patently and demonstrably untrue. First-time writers get agents and get published every day. I don’t know a single established writer who looks around and thinks, “Well, hmm…my house puts out a thousand or so books a year…I’m going to write a lot faster, take up all those slots, and leave the newbies to ebooks! Muahahaha!”

6 03 2009
Steve

Your problem has more to do with the government suddenly deciding to censor books than with the Kindle per se. And yes, you do sound like a very paranoid person watching too many movies.

21 03 2009
Coyote

Yes, a little too ‘conspiracy theory’. ebooks can be published in a number of formats. If the gov’mint decides to censor a book, you can bet that the book will appear in one format or another in the net. If anything, digital publications are HARDER to censor.

12 04 2009
Making Books Disappear « U R B Z E N

[…] Books Disappear 12 04 2009 A few months ago, I posted here about the dangers I saw in the Amazon Kindle and the rise of digital publishing—namely that as we […]

17 04 2009
Brian Jones

Although it may be hard to apply this to the Kindle itself, but when it comes to digital text in general, it is possible to verify the authenticity of a work, and to determine if it has been altered. One such method is the use of hashing algorithms, or digital signatures.

A simple example is the MD5 algorithm. Take the paragraph I wrote above, it’s MD5 hash is:

ff2ccfcba61c606897ddb91c8717f8ef

And if I change the word “possible” to “impossible” the MD5 hash becomes:

dda3c71de1a99495e5f98380145b2d04

Brian.

11 06 2009
RobertD

People used to prattle on about the disruptive problems of this invention too: the typewriter.

I find the trends, overall, to be the opposite of what you said. Take your example of a controversial statement being made about Islam.

Once upon a time, if you made such a statement, someone could try to alter what was said, and undo it. Only the people who were actually there to hear the statement, know it was really said. Everyone else is relying on hearsay, and their own government saying it was never said, and that the stories of such and such being said are actually just the work of those trying to stir up a fight….thats powerful and usually works.

But in the modern era, you publish something on a website, its going to an archive database. And even people who never saw your site when it was live and still contained the statement, that you’ve since removed…can still find it, and see it, and read it, because it’s recorded for all posterity.

Oh, you say, but it can be undone by government going to alter the archive database….

Don’t give government magical powers, that it doesn’t really possess. Archive database are in many different countries, and even exist in many places that are completely untracked, because, frankly, its not even something the government is trying to track.

Let’s also not give into paranoid theories, and take them too seriously.

I don’t own a kindle, but I do own an e-book reader, and its trivially simple to back up all my documents, and they cannot be undone, to be modified serriptitiously.

Period.

24 07 2009
Kindle: See, We Told You So « NotionsCapital

[…] told you. Six months ago Stephanie at UrbZen pointed out the downside of the web-based Kindle digital book reader, the ability of the content to provider to […]

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