Reading in the Panopticon: Your Kindle May Be Spying on You, But You Can’t Be Sure

eye in keyhole on e-reader

Reading in the Panopticon: Your Kindle May Be Spying on You, But You Can’t Be Sure
Communications of the ACM, May 2020, Vol. 63 No. 5, Pages 68-73
Contributed Articles
By Stephen B. Wicker, Dipayan Ghosh

“eBook surveillance is potentially part of a larger trend in which data collection that would be illegal if performed by a state actor has become a common business practice of a private actor.”


The building circular—A cage, glazed—a glass lantern about the Size of Ranelagh—The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference—The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the inspectors concealed from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or if necessary, without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell.
—Jeremy Bentham, 1798


Jeremy Bentham proposed the panopticon as a new form of prison, one that would emphasize surveillance and rehabilitation as opposed to retribution and punishment. The panopticon was to have cells arranged in a circle about a centrally placed watchtower. The cells were lit from behind, outside the circle, so that guards in the watchtower could observe the prisoners, but the prisoners could not see the guards. The panopticon thus created a surveillance regime in which the prisoners never knew when they were being observed, but the sense of being watched was always present. Bentham failed to get the necessary funding for his prison, and it was never built,b but the underlying concept has lived on as a metaphor for the perception of omnipresent surveillance.


Michel Foucault obtained the most traction from the concept, ignoring the more liberal aspects of the scheme to focus on the potential for the application of power.c In Discipline and Punish, he characterized the panopticon, as illustrated in Figure 1, as inducing in the inmate “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Foucault then proceeded to find panopticons in various aspects of modern society, as have many scholars since.d More recently the notion has been applied to virtually all forms of electronic surveillance; the authors and others, for example, have pointed to cellular networks as forming panopticons: cellular technology tracks user movements, creating a detailed personal history that is available to law enforcement, advertisers, and hackers, but is invisible and inaccessible to the user herself.


In this article, we extend the pan-optic metaphor to surveillance technologies that may be built into our eBooks. We choose the words “may be” with great care; our studies of Amazon’s patents indicate the potential for extensive surveillance, but when we asked Amazon to confirm or deny their use of these technologies, we received what can best be described as a non-answer.e It follows that Kindle users do not know that the surveillance technologies described here are actually in use, only that they are available for use. And that, of course, reflects the underlying power of the panopticon.


Having described Amazon’s patented Kindle surveillance technology, we turn to the question of why we should care. Using case law and common sense, we suggest that anonymous reading is connected to free expression. Surveillance has a chilling effect on one’s choice of reading material, which in turn limits what one has to contribute to the marketplace of ideas. We conclude with a brief discussion of possible policy solutions.

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About the Authors:

Stephen B. Wicker is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Dipayan Ghosh is co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project and Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, MA, USA.