Netflix Accidentally Told Everyone If You’re Gay, And This Closeted Lesbian Mom Ain’t Having It


Nothing you put on the Internet is a secret. Ever. Despite what assurances are made to you by YouTube, Facebook, Gmail, Amazon, or in this case, Netflix, there’s a very real possibility your personal data will leak, and it will embarrass you. That’s the hard lesson being learned by a closeted lesbian mom, who is suing the movies-by-mail company for revealing her sexuality. Except she’s got a great case, given that video rental records are actually among the most federally protected records in all the land.

In trying to create a smarter recommendation algorithm, Netflix launched a $1 million prize project and opened up its data records, “anonymously,” to contest entrants. Except that supposedly unidentifiable data of nearly a half million customers — including the rating you gave a movie, when, and the reviews you’ve posted about it — was easily matched up with other data, like that of IMDB, to reveal an anonymous Netflix user’s real identity. Reports Wired:

So it wasn’t surprising that just weeks after the contest began, two University of Texas researchers — Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov — identified several NetFlix users by comparing their “anonymous” reviews in the Netflix data to ones posted on the Internet Movie Database website. Revelations included identifying their political leanings and sexual orientation.

Does this lesbian mom — identified only as Jane Doe in Doe v. Netflix, which is seeking $2,500 in damages for every Netflix customer — have a case? Very possibly.

But video records count among the most privacy protected records in the U.S. — a reaction to a reporter getting Supreme Court–nominee Robert Bork’s records from a video store. The lead attorney on the new suit, Joseph Malley, recently reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with Facebook over its failed Beacon program, which drew fire in part for sharing users’ Blockbuster rentals with their friends.

Meanwhile, in its mission to make its recommendation engine, Netflix is working on a second contest. Except this time it would also make available members’ ZIP codes, ages, and genders — all but guaranteeing an increase in the number of recognizable “anonymous” customers. And all but guaranteeing more privacy violations, which is why Jane Doe’s lawsuit is asking a court to nix the second contest.

It’s understandable why your movie rental records are considered so private: Your viewing habits, like your library book check-out data, tell an awful lot about your person. And because these things (movies, books) are consumed in the privacy of your home, there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy. Not only does federal statute (the Video Privacy Protection Act) make it a crime to release such data (and some states, like Michigan, go even farther), but Netflix’s own privacy policy says it won’t tell anyone if you like Brokeback Mountain or Eating Out 3.

What’s shocking, however, is that your Netflix movie rentals are given broader federal privacy protections than the arguably more personal data you upload to Facebook — all of which is very, very identifiable. And even more capable of outing you.