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Digital reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, the iPad, and other tablets aren’t just convenient for average people. They’re also very convenient for Big Brother and anybody else that wants to see what you’re reading.
Professors at Texas A&M University can now monitor their students’ reading of digital textbooks with software from a company called CourseSmart, The New York Times reported. Using CourseSmart, the professors can tell what textbooks the students are reading and how many pages they’ve looked at. That’s bad news for a lot of lazy college students and very bothersome for the rest of us.
Does Homeland Security Know Your Reading List?
If CourseSmart can be used to monitor what college students are reading, it can be used to monitor what everybody else is reading; for example, anybody who downloads any book that is considered to be radical or subversive. Anybody who downloads The Communist Manifesto or anything else by Karl Marx could be labeled a Communist. A person that read a lot of books about the Confederacy could be labeled a racist or white supremacist. Anybody that downloaded the Koran could be placed on a list of Islamic terrorists.
Gun owners in particular should be worried. One potential abuse is that anybody found to be reading radical or extremist literature would be placed on a list of people considered too dangerous to own guns. Another is that lists of people who order gun-related books or books on explosives could be put on a list of suspects for a gun roundup. This means that a mystery writer that downloaded a book on guns to use as a source of material for a novel could turn up on a list of “gun-owning criminals” even if she didn’t own a gun.
Any book that contains information that could be used in bomb making could also trigger search programs. This would include any chemistry textbook or any book on chemistry. A college student that orders a chemistry book and a history of Nazi Germany for their spring classes could suddenly be pegged as a “Neo Nazi” by the monitoring process.
People that don’t believe this should remember that the Transportation Security Administration has harassed people with Arabic language documents at airports. One suspected terrorist targeted at the Philadelphia airport was studying Arabic in order to apply for a job as an intelligence analyst.
Remember, the Department of Homeland Security sees nothing wrong with searching little old ladies and two year olds. There’s no telling what these people will think if they see your reading list. Anybody that orders any sort of survival related book could be placed on a list of dangerous “right-wing” terrorists or added to the no-fly list.
We need to worry about this because online book sources like Amazon and services like Google Shop gather extensive amounts of information about their customers. It hasn’t hard to imagine the FBI monitoring purchases of certain books. In the future people could be denied security clearances and turned down for certain jobs based solely on their reading list.
Monitoring All Your Reading and Searches
It’s not just the books and videos that you read or download that get monitored. Anybody who uses Google sees advertising related to searches they’ve done pop up. When I researched wheatgrass and juicers for articles, I started seeing a lot of ads for wheatgrass and juicers on the webpages on my browser.
It isn’t hard to imagine the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) monitoring everybody who searches for guns or ammunition for sale. The same goes for anybody looking for survival supplies or camping gear. Even persons that download articles about certain topics could be targeted—for example, a person that downloads a lot of anti-gun-control editorials. And of course, anybody who visits a website considered dangerous or radical can also be labeled as a threat. That information is already stored—it is just a matter of access.
Is Free Access to Information Under Threat?
The worst nightmare scenario is that in China, where the government closely monitors the Internet and blocks certain websites. Such abuses are not likely in the U.S., but monitoring of average citizens’ reading and net use by authorities and others is.
The potential abuses of this are endless. Employers could monitor employees’ reading habits, and a person that downloaded a lot of books about unions might be noted as a potential union activist and fired or laid off. The same could happen to anybody labeled a racist or a homophobe. Companies might access reading lists of job applicants and not hire anybody that had ordered a lot of books about guns or somebody that plays a lot of violent video games or watches violent movies.
Worst of all, it might be possible for companies or others to purchase this information. Like the information on your credit report, it could stick around forever online and be just as inaccurate. A person who took a history of Nazi Germany course in college could end up on the radical list because he ordered a batch of books about Hitler. He might get turned down for a job ten or fifteen years later—even if he has no Nazi sympathies and was just taking the class because it was the easiest option in rounding out his history minor.
How to Protect Yourself
What average people should realize is that in the digital world Mark Zuckerberg is right: Privacy is dead, so get used to it. Be careful whenever you download anything or order anything online; there is always a digital record of it.
That means it might be a good idea not to order certain things online. If you need to read the Koran or The Communist Manifesto as part of a college course, it might be a good idea to get a paper copy of it from a bookstore and pay cash. There is no digital paper trail associated with used books if you buy them directly for cash.
I would be careful when using Amazon or eBay, because those services keep extensive records of purchases. You should be careful when using a credit or debit card online or in the real world. There is a record of every purchase you make through such contrivances. Checks and online money transfers such as PayPal can be just as bad because there is a record there.
There are some ways to cover your tracks; one would be to download books or videos or place orders through an online device that you purchased for cash. You can buy a cheap tablet with Wi-Fi directly from a retail store with cash. Make sure it uses the Google Chrome operating system so there is no license fee. Never put a record of problematic searches on your computer at home or work or on a device with your name or address associated with it. Then log on through public Wi-Fi and create a separate e-mail account using a fake address and name. You can even set up a PayPal account using a fake ID if you have an email address.
If you want to make purchases, you can buy a gift card or preloaded credit or debit card at a store for cash. Then use that online the way you would use a regular credit card. You can even add money to a PayPal account this way. This method isn’t perfect, of course; the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) have likely already figured out how to monitor it, or will soon. But it is still a step in the right direction.
In addition, if the books you want to read are available at the local library, you can go and read the books there. While you need identifying information to get a library card and check out books, you usually don’t need any credentials to simply walk in and pull a book off the shelf. Read for as long as you like in the building and then simply return the book to the shelf or the front desk. The same thing often works at larger bookstores. I know at my local Barnes and Noble, they actually have chairs scattered around so that customers can sit down and read if they like. There is no time limit, and the hours are actually better than at the library!
Paper = Privacy and Freedom
So at the end of the day, paper books might just be one of the most secure sources of information around, because there is no way for Big Brother to monitor your reading of them. Those of us who value knowledge might be well advised to store up large numbers of paper books, particularly those that bureaucrats might brand as dangerous or radical at some point in the future, and hide them. Paper might be one of the best guarantees of First Amendment rights that we have.