We Like to Watch – Who’s Monitoring Your Reads?

Could our books be spying on us? 

sandy pentlandWhile this might sound like the ravings of a paranoid delusional, marketers, supplied by willing service vendors, and armed with plenty of computing power, are able to extract a fair amount of information about our daily lives from the copious electronic records we leave behind in every transaction.   Consider some of the recent press (e.g. BusinessWeek) about “reality mining.”  Reality mining is the process of extracting information from the usage patterns from cell phones and other wireless devices.  This process is detailed in an article by two leading MIT reality mining researchers, entitled “Reality Mining: Sensing Complex Social Systems.”

cell-phone-unfoldingReality mining is a sophisticated new type of data mining that is enabled by copious bread crumbs of data generated when we use wireless devices.  When these devices are equipped with GPS chips, the data offers a geographical component to the behavior pattern being monitored.  Reality mining has been used for modeling how people might respond to terrorist attacks, help cities ease traffic congestion and help planners determine the best location for schools and hospitals.  In the future it might be used to track the spread of infectious diseases, according to an article in Technology Review.

kindleTheis leads one to wonder whether – as we move more of our reading to portable electronic devices – someone might be combing through the electronic footprints we leave to try and tease our some information we might rather keep private.  As more book reading takes place online – whether as text on cell phones, e-book readers like Kindle, or simply as snippets delivered in your Blackberry’s e-mail – one can imagine that soon publishers and retailers might start collecting information about our e-reading habits such frequency, duration and even where / when (if the device is GPS enabled).  Combine this with the type of sales information already available and it provides a pretty powerful peek into what was once our private literary domain.

maxwell-smartThere are plenty of concerns about privacy.  Not only about the collection and sharing of data without consent, but also the interpretation of that data.  A year ago, the public was shocked by a story in the Washington Post and other newspapers about the existence and extent of a program of profiling of average Americans by the Department of Homeloand Security.  Concerns may shift now to the way in which commercial enterprises might attempt to use reality mining to tease out the nuances of our economic and social behavior.

Perhaps our best hope for defending our privacy in an “always on” society, is that human behavior is fickle and unpredictable.  Computer programs, however powerful, and data archive, however vast, represent past knowledge.  And, as every social scientist knows, the past does not necessarily predict the future.

But just in case, you may want to unplug your Kindle and simply curl up with your cozy – and silent – paper based book.


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