Netflix Sued For Revealing Private Info In $1 Million Ratings Contest

from the borked-by-the-bork-law dept

As we’ve noted in the past, there really is no such thing as an anonymized dataset. There are almost always ways to reconnect at least some of the data to individuals. Now, when it comes to movie rental data, that’s especially problematic, due to the Video Privacy Protection Act (VPPA), 18 USC 2710, a special law that was passed after Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork ran into some trouble when his movie rental lists were made public. Last year, Blockbuster and Facebook ran into some trouble over this law, due to Facebook’s disastrous “Beacon” offering, that often displayed your Blockbuster rentals. But, what about the famous Netflix prize? After all, that was based on a big “anonymous” set of data. Back in September, we noted that there was some serious concern about privacy associated with that data… and that meant it was only a matter of time until the lawsuit was filed.

Apparently the same lawyer who brought the lawsuit over the Facebook/Blockbuster Beacon snafu has sued Netflix over its contest. It is, of course, a class action lawsuit, filed initially on behalf of an “in-the-closet lesbian mother” who claims that her video rental info was included in the anonymous data, and that it could be used to “out” her. While I agree that the data likely wasn’t very anonymous, this lawsuit does seem like something of a stretch, in the typical class action format of a lawyer reaching pretty far in hopes of getting a big payout. I do have concerns about Netflix releasing a big dataset, but this lawsuit is just a pure moneygrab.

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Comments on “Netflix Sued For Revealing Private Info In $1 Million Ratings Contest”

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Ah, the victim card played oh so well....

“It is, of course, a class action lawsuit, filed initially on behalf of an “in-the-closet lesbian mother” who claims that her video rental info was included in the anonymous data, and that it could be used to “out” her.”

That’s PERFECT! Get a lawsuit going on the basis of anonymous data, and then conjour up, either by seeking or faking, a hot-topic victim. And who can call you on it? Even if you’re totally faking the whole thing, how would the general public be able to tell? After all, this in the closet lesbian can’t stride out in front of the courthouse and say, “Yes, I’m seeking money damages because I’m an in the closet anonymous lesbian who is afraid of people finding that out, Mr. Newsman. Could you please make sure you get my entire face in the camera? I bleached my upper lip for this shit…”

I mean, it sucks that people have personal data leaked…but how contrived does this particular victim seem? What happened, no cuddly puppies with cancer rented any movies during this contest?


It's terrible

What I am angry about is that despite them sending my personal rental information all over the place, it continues to recommend horrible movies.

Of course, that appears to be all that Hollywood produces these days – despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these blockbuster films…but that’s another topic.



So this in-the-closet lesbian, who is anonymous because she has not been outed (yet) by the rental data, is now fronting a class action lawsuit which is going to get a ton of press and probably get her outed?

What’s next? A class action suit against her lawyer on behalf of people in the class who were formerly anonymous but whose identities were discerned by interested people after hearing about the lawsuit?


Yeah, I rented “The Ali G Show” and next thing you know it started recommending NBC shows like “The Office” and Fox Specials such as “The Glenn Beck Comedy Tour: Uncensored in Mobile Alabama”, which really sucked.

Something was weirdly incorrect with that ratings system. Maybe it thinks I like to watch TV Shows on DVD.


Bad Lawsuit

I’ll take a stand on Netflix’s behalf right here. The only reason the “anonymous” data was able to be linked back to some members was because those members “outed” themselves on publicly accessible websites by providing their personal information and rating lots of movies.

“Anonymous” data sets a company releases should have the requirement of not being able to be directly linked back to any customers, unless those customers have made the same information, or a significant portion of it, available elsewhere. Even then, the data set by itself should not be sufficient to identify the person.

Less critical, but very highly recommended by me, if you are going to release any data about your customers, you should contact them with a sample of what will be released a month or two before hand, and give them the chance to opt out.

Brad Hubbardsays:

The Irony is Lost

So what’s great about this is that

a) The lawyer waited several years from the time (and publication) the “data leak” – I wonder what the statute of limitations is on something like this?

b) The private party has not proven they were included in the dataset. Given that it’s been out for years (since Oct 2006), if it WERE possible to discern her identity from a series of 1-5 ratings and a randomly generated bunch of user IDs, don’t you think someone would have done it by now? No one has successfully reverse-identified a Netflix user from the Netflix prize dataset yet.

c) Given the relatively narrow definition of sexuality that our country seems to recognize, watching movies and shows that involve lesbians does not a lesbian make. Unless she’s renting porn through Netflix (in which case…how did I miss that section???), you’d be hard-pressed to show she could actually be “outed” this way, even if you could somehow identify her.

d) An anonymous class action lawsuit seems like a money grab if EVER there was one. Not even naming a slighted party, and hoping one will come forward? Good luck.

Joe Smithsays:

how many bits does it take?

I competed in the Netflix prize contest and, frankly, I never gave a damn who the customers were.

The breach of privacy was only possible if the attacker had a lot of info about the target – not just what they rated, but when they rated it.

Finding a needle in that haystack was impossible unless the needle was jumping up and down shouting “look over there and you’ll find me.”

The fact is that most people are not nearly as different or as interesting as they think they are and the rest of us have no interest in violating their privacy – in fact we wish the neighbors would close their windows and curtains. So far as the lesbian lady – who, other than her husband, would give a rat’s ass whether or not she was lesbian.

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