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New Guide Details E-book Privacy Rules

For many book lovers, e-readers are a coveted gift item.  It’s not hard to understand why. After all, it’s a lot easier to carry a dozen e-books on vacation than a dozen hardcover versions. Not to mention the ease of purchasing books or even borrowing e-books from the library (no more lost books or library fines to deal with).

But as with any gadget that depends on the Internet for a transaction, e-readers leave an electronic trail.  In fact, your e-reader carries more information about your reading habits than you’d like.

“It is important to think of e-book sources as regular e-commerce websites,” said Doug Wolfgram of IntelliProtect, a company dealing with personal privacy management.  “All searches, purchases, comments and in Amazon's case, even searches for nonbooks can be associated with a particular user. Amazon is good at using this information to make recommendations. But the questions consumers should keep in mind are: Do they sell it? And do they share with advertisers?”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) released a guide specifically to answer these questions.  EFF investigated the privacy practices of pretty much every e-reader on the market, including Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, the Sony Reader, iPad and Google Books.  The guide is then broken down into seven questions with specifics of each e-reader’s policy on the topic.  The guide doesn’t endorse one product over another.

The guide reveals that, for people especially concerned about privacy, what some of the e-book sellers know about their consumers can cause some concern.

For example, one question brought up in the guide is: Can they monitor what you're reading and how you're reading it after purchase and link that information back to you? Can they do that when the e-book is obtained elsewhere?  The answer: Google Books and Amazon Kindle can. Sony Reader, FB Reader, Internet Archive, Adobe Content Server and iPad do not.

“Kindle for Mac runs on iPad and that system keeps track of what page you are currently on,” Wolfgram explained. “This is useful when migrating between devices (as I often do), so when I read on the Mac it stays in sync with the iPad. If they have this information, they can infer little else about individual users unless you are reading a lot.”

Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader and iPad can also share consumer information outside the company without the customer’s consent, but Wolfgram pointed out that just because they can doesn’t mean they do.

“The important question is: Do their privacy policies allow it? This question is at the core of what is currently going on between FTC and Commerce Department,” Wolfgram said.

“This question falls under the umbrella of larger questions: Is a consumer protected? And if the government enforces protection, is innovation stifled? This argument will continue to be a topic of interest both for government and private enterprise.”

If nothing else, the EFF’s E-Book Buyer’s Guide gives consumers one more checklist of information and another list of concerns to consider before picking out the right e-reader.