Book 'Em: How Safe Is Your e-Book Reader?Michelle V. Rafter
When the first Kindle appeared in 2007, Jesse Vincent was curious but not convinced the e-book reader with the 6-inch black-and-white screen was worth the hefty price tag. Two years later, Amazon introduced a skinnier Kindle 2 with longer batter life, faster page refreshes and room for 1,500 books. Vincent stopped resisting. “It was appealing,” the Somerville, Mass., software developer says.
Today, Amazon has sold approximately 400,000 Kindles to book lovers and techies alike. Even if the Kindle, and other e-book readers, don’t revolutionize the world of literature the way supporters believe they will, they're becoming impossible to ignore.
Something else that’s impossible to ignore: the security challenges e-book readers pose. In recent months, a handful of Kindle owners have used Twitter to share how their devices were stolen and accounts taken over. Because e-book readers are essentially computers using a 3G wireless connection and a Web browser to download electronic data, it’s important to take steps to secure them and the information they store.
A Swell of e-Books and e-Readers
With approximately 275,000 e-books in its online store and more titles listed every day, Amazon is the most visible purveyor of e-books and e-readers. Shortly after rolling out the Kindle 2 in February, the Seattle company introduced the Kindle DX, a blown-up model with a 9.7-inch screen and built-in PDF reader optimized for newspapers, magazines and other large-format material. This fall, students at six universities -- including Princeton, Arizona State University -- will participate in a pilot program to use Kindle DXs for reading textbooks and lecture notes.
But challengers are lining up with their own e-readers, including Sony, Plastic Logic and iRex. Or if you can’t put down your smartphone, there are e-reader apps you can use. Look for iPhone apps called Eucalyptus and Stanza. Or for Blackberry, there’s eReader. For Windows-based devices, there’s the Mobipocket Reader.
When it comes to security, e-readers aren’t so different from computers or smartphones. Here are some issues to be aware of and what you can do about them:
Device theft. Part of e-readers’ appeal is how compact and lightweight they are. Currently, Kindles don’t offer password protection or locks. “Anyone can pick up your Kindle and read a document,” says Garrett Kiely, a Kindle user and director of the University of Chicago Press, which has made 344 -- about 10 percent -- of its academic texts available on the e-reader. Play it safe by developing good safety habits, like remembering to put devices away in a briefcase, purse or computer bag when you’re finished.
Identity theft. Lack of a lock or password means if you’ve got a Kindle and someone steals it, they could log on under your identity and charge e-books to your credit card, as was the case with the individuals who recounted the tales of their stolen Kindles on Twitter. Even if you put a stop on your credit card, a thief could deactivate your account on Amazon’s e-book store and create a new one under their own name and credit card. “There’s no way of telling that the one they were using was stolen,” says Stephen Peters, the Woodland Hills, Calif., writer and author of Kindle Culture (Arte Intera Press), an e-book about the Amazon e-reader.
Viruses. E-readers use the 3G wireless network that cell phones use, and stripped down Web browsers to connect over the Internet to e-book stores. Some devices also let you connect to a laptop or desktop computer to upload or download files. As a result, it’s conceivable an e-reader could inadvertently catch a virus or worm from an email message, file or Web page. There haven’t been reports yet of this happening, according to Peters, but that doesn’t mean the threat won’t increase as e-readers become more popular. The reason is that hackers normally write viruses to target Windows-based computers because so many people use them, and since the number of people using Kindles and other e-readers is tiny by comparison, attacking these devices may not be as attractive right now to hackers, he says.
If you’re thinking of joining early enthusiasts and picking up an e-reader, expect the number of books and other materials formatted for the devices to grow exponentially. But, as with other portable electronics, remember the potential security risks that go with using them. Treat an e-reader like a cell phone or laptop. When you’re not using it, tuck it away somewhere safe so it can’t get lost or stolen, and take care what you download.
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