Lethem and EFF on why Google Book Search needs privacy guarantees

NPR's Morning Edition did a great segment on the privacy concerns raised by Google's deal with publishers and authors to make books available as search-results. I love the idea in principle, but I'm really worried that Google won't put a decent privacy policy in writing -- for example, they won't promise to keep your reading history (which potentially includes the search terms you used, the pages you viewed, etc) secret from warrantless police requests.

EFF legal director Cindy Cohn and author Johnathan Lethem do a fine job of explaining why this matters and what we'd like from Google in order to withdraw our legal objection to the settlement.

Lethem is one of several authors -- including Michael Chabon and Cory Doctorow -- who have signed on to a campaign to pressure Google Books to offer greater privacy guarantees for its readers. The effort was organized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"They know which books you search for," says Cindy Cohn, legal director for the foundation. "They know which books you browse through; they know how long you spend on each page."

It's the same kind of information that's produced by someone surfing the Web. But Cohn believes books should enjoy greater privacy.

The EFF and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California want Google to keep reader data for less time than normal Web searches. Ideally, they say, the data should be deleted after a month.

Google Deal With Publishers Raises Privacy Concerns (Thanks, Hugh!)


  1. Clear all cookies after each session? Yes, the IP would still be available to google so maybe renew the connection via the router?

  2. Don’t forget Flash cookies (not so easy to delete, and contain a lot more information). Your MAC address is also available to Google or anyone else who wants it.

  3. So why is book browsing history more sensitive than web browsing history?

    The only reason given is that when Jonathan Lethem read books as a kid he enjoyed privacy which gave him an intimacy with reading. But protecting the reading habits of kids isn’t mentioned anywhere else.

    What kind of content is in books that isn’t on websites? The web has novels, instruction manuals, political manifestos… everything. Really I can see more reasons for internet use to be more private than reading habits.

    And Daphne Keller’s point that privacy concerns shouldn’t go in a copyright settlement rings true. I can understand why Cory et al. would want to get assurances over privacy before the books are handed over to Google, but is this the best way to do it?

  4. There are laws already on the books to protect the privacy of library patrons in this regard. For example, Michigan’s Library Privacy Act.

    Google Books does seem to function like a public library in some regards. Could a case be made that (for Michigan residents at least) Google must ensure their privacy?

    Also, “It’s the same kind of information that’s produced by someone surfing the Web. But Cohn believes books should enjoy greater privacy.” It’s not immediately obvious to me why this should be.

  5. How is knowing how long I spend on each page useful information?

    Time spent with a page open doesn’t equate to time spent reading. You could be referencing the page while writing, or just going away to eat or use the toilet. This page has been open in my browser for like 7 hours because I left it on overnight. It means nowt.

  6. Alright, before throwing a reflex panic– what’s the worst that could happen here?
    The notion of warrantless police searches is an esthetic irritation, true, but since reading published information isn’t illegal, exactly what would the police _do_ with the info that you lingered on page 298 of “War and Peace” for longer than average or breezed through the first half of “Return of the King”?

  7. Cicada:

    Well, if the book you’re reading is Lenin’s The State and the Revolution and there is a sudden return to McCarthyism then you’d probably like to keep that private.

    But I still don’t see how that’s different to reading a website about Lenin, which the EFF believes.

  8. @ Piers W #2: Your MAC address is available to your router, and your router’s mac address is available to your ISP (but they already know who you are anyway).

    Can you provide a source for your claim that Google, or anyone else who wants it, can get your MAC address?

  9. I changed my MAC to fe:ed:de:ad:be:ef so people will think I’m Peter Shipley.

    I think I just tripped some sort of limit with that one… better sign off for the night.

    Bye all!

  10. I’d add that the Kindle would seem to present risks at least as serious. They can know who paid for the device, which parts of the text have been read/bookmarked, and for newspapers/periodicals, which articles have been read. Do they save or transmit this information? Difficult to say, as it goes through their private 3G network. All we know is that Amazon has proven it cannot be trusted, and that you have no rights to any of the bits stored on the Kindle. There are currently no technical limitations on what they can do with your data, and until they change their terms of service, no legal protections either.

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