Shocked and Owad

Using “a pair of 5-year-old computers, two home DSL connections, 42 hours of computer time, and 5 man hours,” Tom Owad discovers how easy it is to find “documents describing the reading preferences of 260,000 U.S. citizens.” (Link via BoingBoing, not that they need Kitabkhana’s puny traffic numbers, but go browse anyway.)
“…few things tell you as much about a person as the books he chooses to read. Isn’t that why the Patriot Act specifically requires libraries to release information on who’s reading what? For this reason, I chose to focus on the information contained in the popular Amazon wishlists,” Owad writes.
Then he used Yahoo People Search, Google Maps and Ontok Geocoder to create maps of, say, readers in the US reading 1984, or the Torah.
The point? Read the whole thing on his page:
“This is what’s possible with publicly available information, but imagine if one had access to Amazon’s entire database – which still contains every sale dating back to 1999 by the way. Under Section 251 of the Patriot Act, the FBI can require Amazon to turn over its records, without probable cause, for an “authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” Amazon is forbidden to disclose that they have turned over any records, so that you would never know that the government is keeping records of your book purchases. And obviously it is quite simple to crossreference this info with data available in other databases.
On a final note, the FBI is now hiring computer scientists to implement a project that sounds very similar to what I just did…”

Two things: I’m kind of glad Owad is one of the good guys, you know? And yes, the security concerns are worrying, but imagine the fun you could have with a Google Earth Reads version of Google Maps, if you could see maps of who’s reading the Wizard of Oz and Heidegger simultaneously; you could tell which mean streets were paved with Borges and which ritzy neighbourhoods had read nothing but Dan Brown all year. Owad could have helped create the world’s first reading atlas ever–small consolation for the idea that the Forces of Darkness know where you’re putting your bookmarks now, but a pretty consolation all the same.





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