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E-Reader Apps and Devices Are Having a Moment, but Which Ones Protect Your Privacy?

Learn more about the privacy practices of e-reader apps and devices

Girard Kelly | August 10, 2020

With many children and students home during the coronavirus pandemic, parents and educators are looking for more smart tech devices that can be used not only for entertainment and personal development, but also to support distance learning. However, many households don't have reliable high-speed internet or sufficient data plans, let alone enough adequate devices, such as computers, laptops, or tablets.

Common Sense just released a new state-by-state report on the digital divide for America's K–12 students, which showed that the divide is much larger than previously estimated and that it affects our nation's teachers, too. This analysis found that 15 to 16 million K–12 public school students (or 30% of all K–12 public school students) and 300,000 to 400,000 K–12 teachers (roughly 10% of all public school teachers) lack the quality connectivity and device hardware necessary to support distance learning tools, like virtual classrooms or video tutorials. 

Many schools that previously had only one smart device or laptop per several students have quickly adapted to emergency distance learning by purchasing new educational technology, including multipurpose laptops, e-readers, and tablets, to make sure each student has an appropriate device for distance learning this fall. Because of this surge in demand, we tested the most popular e-reader and tablet devices K-12 students use to identify the potential privacy risks and harms that may affect children, students, and families. 

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Products we rated

We tested the following e-reader devices and companion reading apps:

  1. Apple Books on the iPad
  2. FreeTime Unlimited on the Amazon Fire HD Kids Edition Tablet
  3. Nook on the Barnes and Noble Nook GlowLight 3
  4. Kindle on the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite
  5. Samsung Kids+ on the Samsung Galaxy Tab A
  6. Google Play Books on the Lenovo Smart Tab M10

What are e-readers?

An e-reader is a smart tech device that uses software on a handheld hardware device to display books, articles, and other text-based content. Content may be downloaded from the internet through a particular service or subscription, or as a one-time purchase. E-readers were initially considered a luxury purchase or status symbol, but prices of e-readers have fallen rapidly in the past few years. As they have become more affordable, more and more kids and teens use them every day.

However, not all e-readers are the same. There are inexpensive e-readers with only one basic feature and more expensive models with dozens of advanced features. There are even e-readers designed for specific purposes or associated with particular vendors, like the Amazon Kindle. Some e-readers collect very little sensitive data, but others are designed to collect as much sensitive data as possible, with thousands of data points used to create a profile about the individual. 

For our testing, we focused on just e-readers and tablets kids and teens use for reading. We spoke with many parents and educators to learn what are the most popular smart e-readers used by kids as young as 4 at home, teens up to 18 years old on the go, and students in K-12 classrooms. We categorized dozens of popular e-readers by brand name, price, gender, age group, and features.

It was difficult to choose only a handful of popular e-readers, but we carefully selected six models for this article that we believe are representative of most types of e-readers and tablets used for reading on the market today. We chose e-readers based on popular brand names, price range, and number and level (basic to advanced) of features. We also chose e-readers used by children and students in every major age group at home, outdoors, and in the classroom.

What are the risks?

Children and data privacy

When it comes to their children and students, parents and educators value the ability to understand and control what information is collected from e-readers and tablets. One common concern is whether parents who use e-readers at home and educators who use them in the classroom know what sensitive personal health information is being collected and how it is used. And if so, do you know how to control what information is collected and whether your child's or students' personal data is being used to deliver personalized or targeted ads? E-readers can request access to your mobile device location, modify storage, make phone calls, view contacts, save photos, play media, and access files on the device. More advanced features can also request access to view your calendar, modify contacts, view call logs, send emails, and respond to text messages.

  • The facts: E-readers are treated as trusted devices and can collect a significant amount of sensitive data and personal information.
  • The feelings: Parents and educators may have feelings about e-readers always collecting data from their children and students while learning—basically every time they pick up the device and start reading. This is often referred to as the "creepiness" factor and could include collecting sensitive data without express permission or using the data for purposes other than what the device was initially purchased to be used for.
  • The future: Beyond what is currently collected and how it is used, e-readers and tablets may store sensitive data indefinitely. At some point, companies may use the data in ways that no one has yet imagined.

What should parents and educators do?

Parents and educators have several options when deciding whether to purchase an e-reader or tablet reading device. Some may be thinking about whether to buy an e-reader at all, and others may have already made up their mind to buy one, but aren't sure which one is best for privacy. Some may have bought an e-reader and want to know how to change its privacy settings to best protect their children or students. Parents and educators may also want to know how to exercise their data rights and tell companies not to sell their data.

  • Check the privacy settings. All e-readers and tablets have settings on the device itself and settings inside the companion application that allow different data collection features to be turned on or off. If it's not necessary to collect personal data or send and receive messages to the device, then these extra features can be turned off to minimize the amount of sensitive information collected.
  • Turn off the e-reader. Children and students should have the device on only when they're using it and when an adult is present to supervise use.
  • Check which apps are installed on the e-reader. Remove unwanted third-party apps to limit information collection to only the device's manufacturer.
  • Ask companies not to sell your data. Use free online resources, like donotsell.org, to request that companies not sell personal data for profit.
  • Make your preferences known to companies and legislators. Many parents have taken (or wanted to take) steps to limit data collection—and about half of those surveyed think they have, and half want to but they don't know how. This is the jumping-off point for action. The next step is to empower parents and educators so that they actually have this control and use it. Legislators can support this practice by mandating features allowing parental controls, and when that doesn't fully protect kids, allowing the information to be deleted from devices and databases.
  • Make informed decisions about which e-readers to buy and use. This article is a snapshot of e-readers right now. Business practices change rapidly as companies think creatively about how to gather, process, and sell data. In deciding whether to purchase or use an e-reader, consider the impact on children that may use the device. Factor into your decision the cost of the device, purchases that may be made with the device or companion app, and the potential use of your personal information by the device manufacturers and other companies the device might share your data with over time.

How we rate privacy

Privacy and security are intertwined, and security is the foundation of effective individual privacy. When evaluating whether to have children use an e-reader or tablet for reading at home or in the classroom, parents and teachers need a comprehensive understanding of both the privacy policies and security practices of the device. To create a truly comprehensive evaluation process, the Common Sense Privacy Program completes a full, in-depth, 150-point inspection of a product's privacy policies in order to offer privacy ratings that are easy to understand.

How we test security

We also did hands-on security testing of each smart device, based on Consumer Reports' Digital Standard. The standard is a set of expectations for how smart tech manufacturers should handle privacy, security, and other digital rights. The goal of the Digital Standard testing criteria is to educate consumers about a product's privacy policy and security practices, and to influence smart tech manufacturers to take these concerns into consideration when developing their products.

The Privacy Program uses the Digital Standard to do security testing of the 10 most critical security practices that parents and educators say they need to make an informed decision. These security practices include information collection from a smart device and its companion mobile application, and the transmission of information between the device and the internet.

In addition to basic security testing of these most critical security practices, Common Sense created an 80-point full security assessment of the most important security practices of a smart device and companion mobile application that incorporates Consumer Report's Digital Standard with the Ranking Digital Rights questions and OWASP IoT security questions.

The combination of Common Sense's privacy evaluation and Consumer Report's Digital Standard security testing criteria results in the most comprehensive testing of a smart device and its companion mobile application currently available for consumers to help them make an informed decision about whether to use a product with their children and students.

What we found

The following ratings and scores are from our privacy evaluation results of the default e-reader apps installed on each smart e-reader or tablet device. For more privacy evaluation information about each product, click on the app's name in the chart below to read about each e-reader and companion mobile applications in more detail. The following chart illustrates a range of privacy practices from "best" to "poor" based on our privacy ratings. Products that score a "poor" are not necessarily unsafe, but they have a higher number of privacy problems than the "average" product. Similarly, products that score "best" are not necessarily problem-free, but had relatively fewer problems compared with other products.

 

Reading apps

Product Privacy Rating Data Collection Data Sharing Data Security Data Rights Data Sold Data Safety Ads and Tracking Parental Consent School Purpose
Apple Books 79% Pass Good Best Best Best Good Average Best Good Poor
Google Play Books 75% Warning Good Best Best Best Average Average Average Good Poor
FreeTime Unlimited 63% Warning Average Good Average Best Average Fair Average Good Poor
Amazon Kindle 62% Warning Average Good Average Best Average Fair Average Good Poor
Barnes and Noble Nook 62% Warning Fair Good Fair Best Average Average Average Good Poor
Samsung Kids+ 43% Warning Fair Average Fair Good Fair Poor Fair Average Poor
Guide to the ratings: The information in this table provides a snapshot of each product's Common Sense privacy rating from July 1, 2020. Expert evaluators assessed different privacy-related concerns and ranked a product's practices from "best" to "poor," with special attention given to how these privacy practices affect kids and families. Key: Best (81–100); Good (61–80); Average (41–60); Fair (21–40); Poor (0–20).

From the privacy concern chart above, you can see that Apple received the highest overall score and the only "pass" rating, while Samsung received the lowest overall score with a "warning" rating. For example, Apple did better than Samsung in every category. Surprisingly, Amazon Kindle, FreeTime Unlimited, and Barnes and Noble Nook all received similar overall scores, but had different strengths and weaknesses in their concern scores that contributed to their overall points.

For example, Amazon Kindle had better data collection and security practices, but Barnes and Noble Nook had better practices in place for protecting data collected from children with parental consent and describing school use by educators. However, Amazon Kindle and Amazon FreeTime Unlimited share many of the same privacy policies, but even with an additional FreeTime Unlimited specific privacy policy that prohibited interest-based advertising to kids, there was no other meaningful difference between Amazon Kindle and FreeTime's overall score or rating.

Google Play Book's overall score came in a close second to Apple Books, but Google lost points in the concern category of selling data, and the use of advertising and tracking practices which can put children and students personal information at risk. Google did have better privacy practices than Apple when it came to parental consent, but did not provide any information about how it protects student data privacy in K-12 schools and districts.

Compare privacy ratings

The following chart compares the privacy practices of the all e-reading apps we tested which are used to determine their privacy ratings. These worse practices can put children's and students' privacy at risk by selling personal data to third-party companies or use of personal information for third-party marketing, advertising, tracking, or ad-profiling purposes.

Product Privacy Rating Sell Data Third-party Marketing Targeted Ads Third-party Tracking Track Users Ad Profile
Apple Books 79% Pass No No No No No No
Google Play Books 75% Warning No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
FreeTime Unlimited 63% Warning No Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Amazon Kindle 62% Warning No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Barnes and Noble Nook 62% Warning Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Samsung Kids+ 43% Warning No Unclear Unclear Yes Unclear Unclear

1. Apple Books


From the privacy ratings chart above, you can see that Apple's policies received a "pass" rating because they did not engage in any of the worse practices—for the purposes of our privacy evaluation—that prohibit selling data, or engaging in third-party marketing, targeted advertising, or tracking of children or students. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating:

Rating icon for Pass 79% Rating label for Pass

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Better Users cannot interact with trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Better Data is not shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Unclear Users can interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Better Users can control their information through privacy settings. Better Traditional or contextual advertisements are not displayed.
Unclear Profile information is shared for social interactions. Unclear Users can create or upload content. Better Behavioral or targeted advertising is not displayed.

2. Google Play Books


Google's policies received a "warning" rating because their policies disclose they engage in third-party marketing, targeted advertising, and user tracking across the internet. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating:

Rating icon for Warning 75% Rating label for Warning

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Better Users cannot interact with trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Worse Data is shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Worse Users cannot interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Better Users can control their information through privacy settings. Worse Traditional or contextual advertisements are displayed.
Worse Profile information is not shared for social interactions. Better Users cannot create or upload content. Worse Behavioral or targeted advertising is displayed.

3. Amazon FreeTime Unlimited


Amazon's FreeTime Unlimited policies are almost the same as Amazon Kindle because they share the same Amazon privacy policy, terms of service, and children's policy. FreeTime includes additional product-specific policies, but Amazon missed an opportunity to include stronger privacy protections for children and students using the app, so their scores and ratings remained similar to Amazon Kindle. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating:

Rating icon for Warning 63% Rating label for Warning

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Unclear Unclear whether users can interact between trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Worse Data is shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Unclear Users can interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Unclear Unclear whether users can control their information through privacy settings. Worse Traditional or contextual advertisements are displayed.
Unclear Profile information is shared for social interactions. Better Users cannot create or upload content. Better Behavioral or targeted advertising is not displayed.

4. Amazon Kindle


Amazon Kindle's policies also received a "warning" rating because they disclose the same worse privacy practices (used for our ratings) as Google, which include third-party marketing, targeted advertising, and tracking users across the internet. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating

Rating icon for Warning 62% Rating label for Warning

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Worse Unclear whether this product supports interactions with trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Worse Data is shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Worse Users can interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Better Users can control their information through privacy settings. Worse Traditional or contextual advertisements are displayed.
Worse Profile information is shared for social interactions. Worse Users can create or upload content. Worse Behavioral or targeted advertising is displayed.

5. Barnes and Noble Nook


Barnes and Noble received a "warning" rating because according to their privacy policy, they engage in every worse privacy practice (used for our ratings). This is troublesome, but the policies say the Nook app and devices are not intended for children to use. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating:

Rating icon for Warning 62% Rating label for Warning

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Unclear Unclear whether users can interact with trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Worse Data is shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Unclear Users can interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Better Users can control their information through privacy settings. Worse Traditional or contextual advertisements are displayed.
Unclear Profile information is shared for social interactions. Unclear Users can create or upload content. Worse Behavioral or targeted advertising is displayed.

6. Samsung Kids+


Samsung Kids' has a product-specific privacy policy just for Kids+, but Samsung missed an opportunity to put in place stronger privacy protections for children than Samsung's other products. The Samsung Kids+ privacy policy does not discuss many of the critical privacy issues that parents and educators care about, so Samsung received several "unclear" warnings in the chart above. Read the full privacy evaluation.

Privacy Rating:

Rating icon for Warning 43% Rating label for Warning

DATA SAFETY DATA RIGHTS ADS & TRACKING
How safe is this product? What rights do I have to the data? Are there advertisements or tracking?
Worse Unclear whether users can interact with trusted users and/or students. Better Opt-in consent is requested from users at the time personal information is collected. Worse Unclear if data is shared for third-party advertising and/or marketing.
Worse Unclear whether users can interact with untrusted users, including strangers and/or adults. Better Users can control their information through privacy settings. Worse Traditional or contextual advertisements are displayed.
Worse Unclear whether profile information is not shared for social interactions. Worse Users can create or upload content. Worse Unclear if behavioral or targeted advertising is displayed.

To learn more about the security practices of these e-reader devices, check out our article Compare E-Reader Devices: Which Ones Protect the Security of Your Personal Information?