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Netflix Sued For Privacy Invasion 262

Posted by kdawson
from the peekaboo-i-see-you dept.
We've discussed the Netflix Prize numerous times as the contest ran, including the news two years ago that the anonymity of the dataset had been broken. Now reader azoblue sends in this excerpt from Wired: "An in-the-closet lesbian mother is suing Netflix for privacy invasion, alleging the movie rental company made it possible for her to be outed when it disclosed insufficiently anonymous information about nearly half-a-million customers as part of its $1 million contest to improve its recommendation system. ... 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. ... If a data set reveals a person's ZIP code, birthdate and gender, there's an 87 percent chance that the person can be uniquely identified." The suit turns on the question of whether Netflix should have known that their dataset's anonymity could be broken, two years before researchers demonstrated that.
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Netflix Sued For Privacy Invasion

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  • Yes (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RichardJenkins (1362463) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:39AM (#30486982)
    How large an area is a zip code in the states? I think in the UK if a company publicly released sensitive data about a people with their birthday and postcode attached there'd be outrage. Muppets.
    • Re:Yes (Score:5, Informative)

      by Shakrai (717556) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:44AM (#30487028) Journal

      How large an area is a zip code in the states?

      Depends on how many households and businesses there are in the area. In a rural setting a zip code may cover an entire city or county. In a heavily urbanized area it may only cover a single building or city block.

      The five digit zip code doesn't tell the whole story though. There's actually the nine digit zip code plus a two digit delivery point code. Every single address in the United States will have a unique nine digit zip code + delivery code. It doesn't mean much to the layman but the USPS can actually represent every single address in the United States with an 11 digit number.

    • It depends on whether it is the long zip or the short zip. The short zip is 5 digits, and that's what most people use when sending personal letters and such; the shorter zip adds additional digits and narrows things considerably.

      Some quick back of the envelope says that 5 digits has 100,000 combinations, meaning that you only have thousands of people (~3k) per zip (some zips more, some less, they assigned them before some population movement). With 366 possible birth days across a number of years (I'm assum

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Springfield, Il (Where Alderman Simpson lives) has a population of 110,000 and roughly five zip codes.

    • My zip code has around 4,000 people in it. This includes a town, several townships, and the countryside in a 10 mile diameter circle around the town. A person wouldn't have to do much digging to find out who so and so is based on a zip code and a birthday.
  • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:41AM (#30487002) Journal

    I don't recall handing over my birthdate when I signed up for my account. I just went through all of the account screens and couldn't find it either. What part of their service expects you to tell them your birthday?

    • by fwice (841569) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:45AM (#30487038)

      I just signed up for an account. It asked for your birthday on the page with your address. However, it _was not_ mandatory.

      I conveniently skipped the 'birthdate', 'gender', and 'your opinion of these genre' sections.

      • by hrieke (126185)

        But, now depending on your movie selections a good system will be able to defer those bits of information.
        Data leakage happens; just computers made it easier to do the grunt work.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bmearns (1691628)
      I'm guessing they probably ask if you're renting adult material. If the mother was outed by the movies she rented, she was probably renting adult material.
      • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:58AM (#30487234) Journal

        Netflix has adult material on it? Why wasn't I aware of this awesome featur^W^Wmoral outrage? ;)

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Netflix has no "adult" material. Sure, a few NC-17 films (many of them for violence as much as sex), and some unrated titles, which may get a little blue. But nothing like the backroom of local rental stores.

        They don't require an age to be specified because they assume if you have a credit card (which is required) then you can rent anything they have.

      • by T Murphy (1054674)
        If the birthdate is just for adult material, they may as well just ask for the month and year- or only let the month and year be used in algorithms.
  • The entire birthday? Holy crap! What did they expect?! Even just narrowing it down to birth year gives you a way to narrow the set considerably when combined with the other two items. What was wrong with the traditional "18-24, 25-40, etc." age ranges?

  • by Carik (205890) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:42AM (#30487016)

    ... this woman is a closeted lesbian. She came to the realization that, if someone hypothetical person were to come along and get into the NetFlix user data system, he could find out she's a lesbian. In order to protect herself from being potentially exposed, she decided to join a high-profile national lawsuit, charging that they had created a potential for people to find out her sexual preferences. How many days do you think it'll be before her picture is all over the web, sitting right next to the headline "formerly closeted lesbian pulled out of closet by attaching her name and face to a privacy lawsuit"?

    • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:46AM (#30487048)

      In order to protect herself from being potentially exposed, she decided to join a high-profile national lawsuit, charging that they had created a potential for people to find out her sexual preferences. How many days do you think it'll be before her picture is all over the web, sitting right next to the headline "formerly closeted lesbian pulled out of closet by attaching her name and face to a privacy lawsuit"?

      She filed as a Jane Doe to protect her privacy.

      • by Carik (205890) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:49AM (#30487078)

        Right. And of course the real names of people who file anonymously NEVER get out.

        • Right. And of course the real names of people who file anonymously NEVER get out.

          To me that's a separate issue - anyone filling a Jane/John Doe lawsuit has to expect their name would eventually become public information.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Carik (205890)

            anyone filling a Jane/John Doe lawsuit has to expect their name would eventually become public information.

            Exactly. So she's just come out on her own... in order to sue someone for the potential that someone going through their data MIGHT be able to figure out that she's a lesbian.

            My point is still the same... she's given up on her privacy in order to sue someone for a potential (but not yet real) breach of privacy.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by rhsanborn (773855)
              While she may be suing for money, it's not unreasonable that she is willing to accept some backlash and her outing for the sake of justice. Companies would be able to get away with gross privacy breaches if there weren't people to keep them in check like this.
            • by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster.manNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:39AM (#30487832)

              My point is still the same... she's given up on her privacy in order to sue someone for a potential (but not yet real) breach of privacy.

              It's a catch-22, no doubt, but at least this way she can possibly force Netflix to fix the initial problem.

              She chose to be proactive, rather than sit and worry. Can't fault her for that. Besides, it is hardly a forgone conclusion that she will be revealed as the Jane Doe in a reasonable time frame.

              • by Carik (205890)

                True. And it's hardly a forgone conclusion that anyone she would ever meet would be involved in analyzing the data from NetFlix. Yes, there's an 87% success rate (according to the article), but how many people are actually doing that analysis? And how likely is it that they would publish the results in her town? Or than anyone in her town would READ the results if they were there?

                Drawing attention to herself just ensures that anyone who does look will try to figure out who she is.

                If she's consciously ma

                • by Bakkster (1529253)

                  Isn't the point of privacy protections to prevent these unlikely circumstances from ever needing to be considered? Add the fact that the dataset is publicly available and it's even more severe. It's a breach of privacy, regardless of whether it is exploited or not.

                  Besides, I'm sure there are trolls out there who would get their jollies purely by skimming the dataset to find people with embarrasing movie habits purely to expose them. Why wait until that happens when you can file as a Jane Doe to prevent i

            • by kent_eh (543303)
              Or she figured that she's already been outed, so she might as well do something so it soesen't happen to someone else in the future.

              And , of course, there's the money.
          • by nomadic (141991)
            To me that's a separate issue - anyone filling a Jane/John Doe lawsuit has to expect their name would eventually become public information.

            I don't know if that's true, there are plenty of lawsuits where anonymity is maintained. I'd guess most of them.
      • by Xtravar (725372)

        And if she wins, how exactly does she explain the influx of money to her family?

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:46AM (#30487050) Journal

      More to the point, what data does Netflix have on you that reveals you to be a closed lesbian? I don't recall seeing a "Are you a closet homosexual?" button when I signed up for my account.

    • IANAL, but she's filed the suit as Jane Doe. Whether this actually protects her or not someone who is a lawyer may be able to chime in.

    • by multisync (218450)

      In order to protect herself from being potentially exposed, she decided to join a high-profile national lawsuit ... How many days do you think it'll be before her picture is all over the web

      From TFA:

      That's why the lesbian mom joined the lawsuit as a Jane Doe [wired.com], according to the complaint

      But bonus points for "lemme get this straight"

    • However, this is a good response to Google's stance on privacy issues that "if you're doing something on the internet you don't want anyone to know about, maybe you shouldn't be doing it."

      I don't see how renting whatever mainstream movies she wanted and wanting to keep her orientation a private matter equates to "something she shouldn't be doing."
  • Filing as Jane Doe? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by whoda (569082) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:45AM (#30487036) Homepage

    How can a legal-aged adult file as Jane Doe just because of her secret of being 'in the closet'?

    • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:51AM (#30487098)

      How can a legal-aged adult file as Jane Doe just because of her secret of being 'in the closet'?

      Simple - the judge gets to decide if her privacy rights outweigh the public interest in keeping lawsuit information available to the public. for more information see: http://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/filing-a-lawsuit-anonymously.html [legalmatch.com]

      To me allowing a Jane Doe suit in such cases is not unreasonable; whether or not her name wil eventually become public is another matter.

    • by Rogerborg (306625)
      Perhaps pecause being a lesbian in Los Angeles, CA (pop. 9,862,049 [census.gov]) is very different from being a lesbian in Moss Landing, CA (pop. 304 [city-data.com])? Not everyone is as broad minded as big city folks.
  • by grapeape (137008) <mpope7 AT kc DOT rr DOT com> on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:51AM (#30487100) Homepage

    "The member’s movie data exposes a Netflix member’s personal interest and/or struggles with various highly personal issues, including sexuality, mental illness, recovery from alcoholism, and victimization from incest, physical abuse, domestic violence, adultery, and rape."

    Isn't this a bit of a stretch. I've rented a rather broad range of films, over the past year some of the films I have watched include Apt Pupil, Lords of Dogtown, Girl Interrupted, A History of violence, A Beautiful Mind, Brokeback Mountain and Super High Me. Evidently I'm a mentally disturbed,abusive, homosexual, drug abusing, skateboarding, autistic nazi and didn't know it.

    The woman who was outed wasn't outed by her movie choices but by her paranoia leading to her own disclosure.

    • by ViViDboarder (1473973) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:07AM (#30487342)
      Exactly what I was going to post! This is crazy. Also, I'd really like to know how someone drew the conclusion that she was a Closet Lesbian from her movie rentals AND that someone randomly picked her out of the huge database AND then took the time to find out who she was and then took the time to notify all her friends... All this for the interest of being malicious towards a stranger they will probably never see...

      Seems a little far-fetched.

      Also, the summary is poorly written because it makes it seem like the Zipcodes and Birthdays have been released when they haven't. http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2009/12/doe-v-netflix.pdf [wired.com]

      http://it.slashdot.org/story/07/11/27/1334244/Anonymity-of-Netflix-Prize-Dataset-Broken [slashdot.org] Shows that it's possible, but it's not like anyone could draw a conclusion on Sexuality with any certainty by those means.

      Also, after reading the article it seems like they HAVEN'T released Birthdays and Zip Codes but that this is only planned for the second iteration. They only had unique ids for users and ratings... The privacy was breached by people datamining other resources. From what I gathered... the people got the identities of people by matching ratings with IMDB ratings... Which in that case I don't think Netflix really provides any more information about someone than they have already made public via IMDB.
      • by kabloom (755503)

        Either it's a privacy violation, or it's not. It shouldn't have anything to do with whether the woman is a Lesbian, or whether that particular fact can be inferred from the data. (Certainly there are easier facts to infer that would be equally if not more compromising to privacy, such as so-and-so rented pornos.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Spazztastic (814296)

      Isn't this a bit of a stretch. I've rented a rather broad range of films [snip]

      I share a Netflix account with my mom. I have the movies go to her address and I use the streaming to my 360 at my apartment. Going by what you mentioned, they must think I'm a menopausal woman who has an infatuation with James Bond.

  • Um... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fredklein (532096) on Friday December 18, 2009 @09:52AM (#30487130)

    If a data set reveals a person's ZIP code, birthdate and gender, there's an 87 percent chance that the person can be uniquely identified

    What idiot answers all those questions correctly?

    • by Bakkster (1529253)

      Yeah, only people who want deliveries to their actual house give their correct ZIP code!

      • by fredklein (532096)

        Do you also give your Gender and Birthdate in order to get stuff delivered?

        So...yeah.

        • by Bakkster (1529253)

          Do you also give your Gender and Birthdate in order to get stuff delivered?

          Only when I'm being facetious ;)

  • by Golddess (1361003) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:00AM (#30487244)
    So while before all that was available was a list of rented films which she seems to think indicates that whoever rents them can indicate that the watcher is gay (which I'm having a hard time making the leap from "if someone watches movie X, Y, and Z, that means they are gay), now the whole world knows she is gay.
  • by Vinegar Joe (998110) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:01AM (#30487262)

    Is she hot?

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No, this is a real-life lesbian, not a "lesiban" from porn. She probably looks like Rosie O'Donnell.

    • Do a google image search on Jane Doe. It looks like she's had plastic surgery numerous times but most if not all of her images are not particularly attractive.
    • Are you also a lesbian? If not, then you are irrelevant.

  • by joeflies (529536) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:03AM (#30487278)

    The way that I thought that it worked was that you sue in civil court when you actuall suffer damages even when the other party was doing something illegal.

    For instance, you can't sue a drunk driver for almost hitting your car. You could press that they did something illegal and have him charged in criminal court, but there's no payday in that. Given that these types of cases seem to be this lawyer's modus operandi, I'm thinking that this case is more about the payday and not about building stronger standards for privacy.

  • by harmonise (1484057) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:03AM (#30487284)

    if a data set reveals a person's ZIP code, birthdate and gender, there's an 87 percent chance that the person can be uniquely identified.

    Why are you giving Netflix your birthdate and gender in the first place? I never give those things to companies, and if I can't avoid it (forced to enter something when signing up) I give bogus information. Neither of those are any of Netflix's business.

    • by aicrules (819392)
      Certainly if you think some important secret of yours will be revealed by giving Netflix that information, you shouldn't give it. However, for me, I like giving them that information because they have used it to recommend movies quite successfully. I don't care if anybody knows I watched Kate & Leopold three times in a row. I'm not going to go out of my way to post what I watch on my FB profile, but if it was there, I wouldn't care.
    • The issue I have sometimes with giving a fake birthday is that it's usually a security question when you go to try the "forgot password" function. If I were to give a different birthday every time, I wouldn't remember which is for which. I suppose I could just give the same fake birthday every time, though.
  • then how was she outed?

  • by name_already_taken (540581) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:11AM (#30487398)

    Speaking as a gay guy with a lot of gay and lesbian friends, I can tell you that some people get really worked up over being "in the closet". They can start to worry about really stupid things that are outside of the bounds of possibility, and work themselves into all kinds of trouble.

    Case in point: a friend of mine got herself fired over this. She knew that her supervisor didn't like gay people and so she was in the closet, as far as work was concerned. She got called up for jury duty. The court case didn't last long at all, but in the meantime, one of our mutual friends' father passed away. So, my friend was invited to the funeral which happened to fall on the day after her jury duty ended. She was so worked up over the idea that her boss would figure out that she's a lesbian if she took a personal day to go to her gay friend's dad's funeral that she lied and told her boss that she was still on jury duty for the day of the funeral. Well, the boss didn't like her and he called the court clerk to confirm that she was still on jury duty - and then fired her for lying about it.

    Had she just took a personal day and said "I'm going to the funeral of a friend's dad" nothing would have happened. As far as I know, there's no mechanism by which you can figure out if the relatives of a dead person (whose name you don't have) are gay or not.

    Maybe this lawsuit lady should read up on the Streisand Effect (you know her name's going to come out eventually), stop worrying so much about what other people think about her sexual orientation, and concentrate on living her life. Can she truly be deluded enough to think that anyone in her life (work, social, government or otherwise) is going to trawl netflix's database to figure out if she's a lesbian and then use that information against her?

    Seriously, this is like when my boss didn't want to have his pay directly deposited because he thought the payroll company could snoop in his bank account. It's just not grounded in reality.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by forand (530402)

      Seriously, this is like when my boss didn't want to have his pay directly deposited because he thought the payroll company could snoop in his bank account. It's just not grounded in reality.

      While they may not be able to see your transactions any company authorized to direct deposit is authorized to deduct money from your account.

    • May I please fully agree with your essay.

      I can further suggest, however, that the woman who's the subject of this article take a look at organizations such as Out and Equal, who make it their mission to support a safe working environment for GLBT community (gay lesbian bisexual, and transgender) members.

  • This case shows the ridiculous extremes that "privacy" has come to. Netflix, apparently, has some sort of affirmative obligation to help this woman hide her illicit sexual escapades. The government is going to require Netflix to help cover up for her proclivities.

    Lesbian romps are voluntary. Using Netflix is voluntary. Telling Netflix about yourself is voluntary. Netflix voluntarily rents you videos. Every aspect of this case involves people freely engaging in voluntary action. And now we're being as

    • by tilandal (1004811)

      Video rental records are protected information under existing federal law. Netflix released rental information to the public. Therefore they are liable for damages if the information was personally identifiable. End of story.

      • by Kohath (38547)

        Lots of things are against the law in totalitarian states. Injustice prevails where force dictates action. This case is unjust. If the law supports this case, then the law is unjust.

  • by gandhi_2 (1108023) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:03AM (#30488178) Homepage

    The suit turns on the question of whether Netflix should have known that their dataset's anonymity could be broken, two years before researchers demonstrated that.

    This is called a "state-of-the-art" defense, and generally doesn't work.

    State of the art defense is the defense that permits a manufacturer to avoid liability in a design defect case if at the time of manufacture there was no safer design available, or in a failure to warn case if at the time of manufacture there was no way the manufacturer could have known of the danger he/she failed to warn against.

    Lets say I was making Asbestos oven mitts, no one knew it was dangerous. The state of the oven mitt industry and materials science (the art) was that Asbestos was fine. Then, 50 years later we find out it's dangerous. The lawsuits will probably prevail because the "state of the art" defense doesn't stand up to strict liability [wikipedia.org].

    On the upside, she'll probably make some new friends in PTA. And who doesn't love hot buttered soccer moms?

  • So anonymity in this case was simply a type of encryption. Making information less obvious doesn't mean the information is lost. True anonymity can only be achieved by purging information, and hence only no information is truly anonymous. Or is it?

    Cracking google's anonymity code is another related topic. It is good that these companies anonymity cards are being challenged.

  • by realsilly (186931) on Friday December 18, 2009 @01:30PM (#30490672)

    I've done enough work for companies in my years to know that zipcodes can be used to uniquely identify individuals. Since there are still parts of this country in which a person may own a very large piece of land and Zipcodes use the +4 to determine specific blocks within a zip code range, then all one needs is a name or the other info mentioned above to uniquely identify a person. This has been known by banks and the post office for as long as the +4 has been around. Banks have strict guidelines around uniquely identified people and what they must do if they are identified when dealing with offers of credit.

    Netflix works with the post office for mass mailing, they would be aware of the ways to uniquely identify people.

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