Yes, your e-reader tracks you, too. Here’s what to do about it.

Privacy news
3 mins
An e-reader with data emanating from it.

This year has given us plenty of reasons to seek out forms of escapism.

For bookworms in particular, getting an e-reader would be a savvy way to add to their literary arsenal. Not only are there advantages to ebooks—they cost less, save space, and can be played as audio books—but libraries and brick-and-mortar bookstores are also harder to visit now, with Covid-19 forcing many of them to close.

But whether you use a Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, e-readers carry privacy risks. The makers of these products can’t resist monitoring your reading activity, from your favorite genres to time spent reading to the amount of highlighting in your book.

What information does your e-reader collect and share?

While there are several e-readers in the market, Kindle unquestionably dominates the e-reader sphere in the U.S., in large part due to its unfathomable collection of compatible e-books.

Regardless of popularity, all three e-reader brands track your purchases, your reading activity, and other interactions you have with your device. Some newer e-readers even collect geolocation data.

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A reporter for The Guardian made a data request via California’s data privacy law and uncovered just how much Amazon, and by extension Kindle, tracks: page turns, dictionary lookups, highlights, and notes, among other taps in and out of books and settings.

It feels trivial, but when your reading history is collected so holistically, it can be used like your browsing history to make inferences about what’s on your mind (and more importantly what you’re more inclined to buy).

How to stop your e-reader from tracking your reading activity

The simplest way is to just turn off Wi-Fi on your e-reader, which stops your reading activity from being sent to the company’s server. Combine this with an open-source e-book management system like Calibre and copyright-free books from Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and you can use your e-reader without worrying about your reading history being sent to a server.

Sounds easy, but you probably bought an e-reader partially because of its internet connectivity, which allows you to get reading material through the massive database of books available.

While not masking how you use Kindle entirely, another solution is to turn off tracking of “device usage data for the purposes of serving you customized marketing offers and improving our products and features.”

To do this on your Kindle:

  1. Go to All Settings
  2. Select Device Options and go to Advanced Options
  3. Select Privacy and then select Disable

On the Amazon website, go to the Manage Your Content and Devices section in your account, and under Privacy Settings you can disable tracking on all your devices, including the Amazon Echo. There are also options to turn off data tracking for features on the Kobo and geolocation services on specific Nook devices.

But this barely makes a dent in what Amazon can still track, and with no other e-book seller coming close to Amazon’s collection, the company has little incentive to see less of what its users are doing, especially if it can help tailor searches for more books and products its users are likely to buy.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to think about what information you’re giving away when you tap open a book to read on your e-reader. Trivial as it may be in comparison with how much social media knows about you, the fact that you have to go to the extreme of turning your Wi-Fi off to ensure nothing personal gets sent from your e-reader is the inconvenience you’ll have to bear for now.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.