Kindle Hackers Are Disabling Tracking and Ads

And installing ‘Zork’ while they’re at it

Illustration: Simoul Alva

IIt’s easy to make the case for a Kindle. It’s portable, you can read it in the dark, and it makes it dumb easy to download a book from Amazon almost instantaneously. But it’s still a device, standardized in a few different forms — the Oasis, the Paperwhite, and so on — lacking the personal touches you’d get in a book with that aged-paper smell, margin notes, dog-eared pages, whatever. A community of amateur and seasoned hackers have figured out how to tinker with Kindles to make the experience a little more “theirs,” reconfiguring them with unapproved fonts and bypassing the ads Amazon injects into cheaper versions of the e-reader.

Some of these hacks also bypass Amazon’s storefront and approved file formats. Users might load pirated .epub books onto their Kindle rather than buying Amazon’s proprietary .mobi format, thereby limiting the amount of data the company is able to collect on their habits.

Jessamyn West, a librarian and technologist in Vermont, says she was a pretty late adopter to the world of Kindles, but after a power outage left her unable to read one night, she was inspired to buy a refurbished backlit Kindle on eBay for about $50. West says she hated how her Kindle’s pages refreshed and went down a rabbit hole of Google searches to see if she could fix it. She ended up finding a community of Kindle hackers who had figured out how to do a bunch of stuff on the device she hadn’t thought of, like replacing Amazon’s stock wallpaper.

“I just don’t like looking at it,” West says of the default images that would appear when she turned the Kindle off. “It had nothing to do with my reading experience. I just didn’t want to look at it.”

“I’m not sitting at home with my Faraday cage, but I do think it’s worth being mindful that they are a gigantic corporation.”

West also saw certain hacks as a way to distance herself — and her reading activity — from Amazon. She figured out how to move different book formats, books from the library, and her own PDFs onto the device without having to go through Amazon, effectively finding alternatives to the tech giant’s ecosystem.

“I don’t want them to know what I’m reading,” says West, referring to Amazon. “I don’t want them to know how far I’ve read in a book.”

She says that because Kindles are connected to the internet, and because users are forced to transact with Amazon for new books, they hand over a wealth of data about users’ reading preferences and habits to the company.

“I’m not sitting at home with my Faraday cage, but I do think it’s worth being mindful that they are a gigantic corporation,” says West, adding that the company’s data collection gives it a competitive edge.

West points to AmazonBasics as an example. Because Amazon both owns the store and sells its own products, the company can easily spot the bestselling extension cord, buy extension cords in bulk from the manufacturer, and then undercut the other merchants offering that bestselling cord since it has market data that other companies don’t.

Tom Mercer, senior vice president of digital products for library e-book vendor Bibliotheca, called out Amazon in August for likely using this sort of competitive market data to convince authors and agents that libraries are bad for their sales, Publishers Weekly reported.

“Your e-book reader, if it isn’t hacked, can contribute to that,” West says. “Not that everyone’s complicit, obviously, but it’s worth understanding the ecosystem in which your reading is taking place.”

Amazon says it uses collected data to help users.

“Maintaining the trust of our customers by protecting their privacy and ensuring the security of their data is a longstanding top priority for Amazon,” an Amazon spokesperson said when asked about how the company tracks user habits, including what books they purchase, when they read, how far into a book they are, and what they take notes on or highlight. “Some information, like the details you mentioned, are logged in order to ensure the performance of our products and services and improve the customer experience.”

Of course, some people augment their Kindles for less idealistic reasons. Iman, a 33-year-old multimedia producer in Massachusetts, who asked not to use his last name to avoid identification in the hacking community, says that as someone who grew up reading physical books, he had gotten used to the ritual of putting his book on the nightstand when he went to bed and seeing the cover image when he woke up. He now has three Kindle devices, and since Amazon doesn’t let you set the wallpaper to whatever book you’re reading, he hacks them to do just that.

“It emulates that experience of reading,” Iman says. “Instead of the generic set of images that Amazon has on the Kindles, I wanted to have that book cover be the screensaver, so every time I’ve gotten a new Kindle, I’ve waited for the jailbreak to become available and installed it specifically for this hack.”

Now when he looks over to his nightstand, Iman sees the covers of Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, or a collection of short stories from the fantasy card game Magic: The Gathering. In its way, this too can be a subtle act of resistance: Amazon offers slightly discounted Kindles that come with “special offers,” meaning they display advertisements when you’re not using them. Though you can disable these through a one-time payment to Amazon, some hackers circumvent the images through other means, replacing the stock wallpapers with their own.

Two of Iman’s custom wallpapers.

Iman is an avid reader, but he switched from paper to e-books when the iPad came out. A few years later, around 2014, he got a Kindle Voyage, which was his first time using an e-ink device. An e-ink screen is an electronic paper display technology with black-and-white text. The iPad, like your smartphone, has an LCD screen that is backlit, can display a range of colors, and has a faster refresh rate than e-ink. Because Iman was used to reading with the iBooks app on his iPad, he felt the Kindle software was frustratingly slow and limiting, so he started to read posts online about ways he could customize his device. That’s how he found the jailbreaking forums.

“From there, I went a little crazy,” he says. Iman installed all sorts of things, including a way to play old games like Zork on the e-ink display.

Where modifications like Zork are concerned, Amazon tries to maintain tight control over its Kindles through proprietary firmware and routine software updates. These updates, according to Amazon, should automatically download to a Kindle device when it connects to Wi-Fi and are necessary to access services and features. Iman, who used to work at a tech company, says he gets it: A vertically integrated device will function as intended and prevent outside manipulation, which is important for security.

These updates are meant to happen seamlessly in the background, and they effectively prevent users from hacking their devices — from accessing e-book formats Amazon doesn’t support, customizing their screensaver, and generally enjoying the device in a less limiting and Amazon-sponsored way. (Again: Zork.)

“I respect why Amazon would not want to have system-level vulnerability on their devices. That’s not a bad thing to want,” Iman says. “But I do wish they provided a more officially sanctioned way to allow people to do some of the things they want to do or just opened up the platform a little bit more to allow enthusiasts to do more stuff with it.”

Joshua Miller, a 28-year-old software developer in the U.K., says that if he has a device that can be hacked, he’ll hack it, and that he first started tinkering with his Kindle device around 2013. Like most people in the online forums, his first hack was to customize the screensaver.

“Amazon’s getting better at stopping us.”

But Miller says the devices are getting harder to hack. If he bought a Kindle today, he might not be able to hack it without physically opening up the case, which Miller describes as difficult due to “the glue and stuff,” and you might have to use a hot-air dryer to loosen the glue and then connect the wires to your computer. Miller says he tried to do that once but ended up breaking the device.

Miller says that in its newer devices, Amazon has fixed some of the numerous ways people used to gain superuser access, which is like admin access. Until someone releases a similar hack compatible with newer devices, he recommends hackers literally open up their Kindle, connect the motherboard to their computer using a serial cable, and get access.

“There aren’t that many people who have the know-how to create these hacks, and Amazon’s getting better at stopping us from hacking our Kindle, so it’s quite limited in the number of experts,” Miller says.

Miller has stumbled upon projects like a Game Boy emulator, better web browser alternatives, alternative book readers that can read different file formats with different designs, and keyboard options for languages that Amazon doesn’t yet offer. And about six years ago, Miller was among the users in the forums sharing their own hacks.

His hack — the KindleLazy app — allows you to use a remote presentation clicker to flip pages and adjust the device’s brightness. He posted his hack on MobileRead, a popular online forum for the Kindle hacking community. “It’s just a bit of fun, a little project,” Miller says.

Though many of the hacks are innocent, there’s an element of risk to all of it: Amazon might release a software update that bricks a device that has been hacked. Iman says that “the shadow of Amazon looms” over these projects. On that note, West says that she’s always loved Freedom to Tinker, a blog run by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy that discusses whether we have a right to explore the brains of our devices.

“I feel like we used to have more of that right,” West says. “We have less of it now, and I kind of wish more people were more curious about that, because I think that’s how you have a more healthy tech infrastructure and environment.”

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