Maybe I should have patented the idea

One of the Panopticon surveillance devices mentioned in Bad Monkeys is something called a Library Binding, which can be installed or implanted in a book (the exact nature of the mechanism is never described) and that, among other things, maintains a record of which pages the book is opened to, for how long. Spend an hour studying the phosgene gas recipe in the Golden Book of Chemistry, and Panopticon will know.

What makes this idea goofily paranoid is that it involves books with actual bindings—the idea of “bugging” a print book seems nuts, although I suppose it’s not out of the realm of possibility if the CIA, or a sufficiently motivated MIT prankster, decided to do it. Monitoring an ebook reader, on the other hand, seems trivial, and I assumed plenty of folks had thought of it and at least a few might actually be doing it.

And then this morning I found out about this (via Tyler Cowen):

The Amazon Kindle, Kindle for iPhone and Kindle for iPad each provide a very simple mechanism for adding highlights. Every month, Kindle customers highlight millions of book passages that are meaningful to them.

We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. We show only passages where the highlights of at least three distinct customers overlap, and we do not show which customers made those highlights…

…the unspoken implication being, they could show which customers (or which customers’ Kindle devices) made which highlights if they wanted to—and also what pages those customers have bookmarked, and possibly how often they’ve accessed each book, and of course what ebooks they own, read or unread. All of which, again, is trivial from a technical standpoint. But it does raise the question of who else might be looking at that data stream, with or without Amazon’s cooperation. I’m not just talking about the government, either—imagine what Gawker could do with a record of some celebrity’s favorite book passages.