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Netflix Sued For Privacy Invasion 262

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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  • by Carik ( 205890 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:42AM (#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 Carik ( 205890 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:49AM (#30487078)

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

  • by grapeape ( 137008 ) < minus author> on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:51AM (#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.

  • Um... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by fredklein ( 532096 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:52AM (#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 bmearns ( 1691628 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:52AM (#30487134)
    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 Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @10:53AM (#30487140)

    Netflix shows what you watch to others that are your "Netflix friends". It's a minor social network that allows you to pass recommendations to others. If they're really snoopy they can see what you watch...but there's also an option to cut that off that's about five clicks deep in the settings.

    So, if all you do is rent skinimax flicks. Yeah, I could see feeling exposed...but honestly, I don't think it's a big deal.

    If privacy is such a big deal to people, they need to get informed. End of story. You can't half-ass privacy. Either bury your identity or deal with the fact that if you put it out's out there.

  • by joeflies ( 529536 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:03AM (#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 @11:03AM (#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 ViViDboarder ( 1473973 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:07AM (#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. [] [] 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 Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:10AM (#30487392)

    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.

    No, she sued for money

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

  • by Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:22AM (#30487540)

    no. Being a lesbian does not mean she cheated on her husband, even if she is still married. For example, this is slashdot, I believe there are a lot of heterosexual men here who have never even touched a woman.

  • by Verdatum ( 1257828 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:23AM (#30487554)
    And the crux of the lawsuit is the presumption that straight people are not allowed to like these movies...wait...I liked Milk quite a bit, and Angels in America was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. Damnit, my girlfriend is gonna kill me when I tell her I found out I was gay...via Slashdot no less.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:26AM (#30487604)

    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.

    More to the point, is she a hot lesbian?

  • by Verdatum ( 1257828 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:33AM (#30487722)
    Infidelity? WTF? That's a major leap of logic. Because she prefers chicks, she obviously cheated on her husband? Who modded this up?
  • by rhsanborn ( 773855 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:37AM (#30487782)
    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,man&gmail,com> on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:39AM (#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.

  • Re:Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheSeventh ( 824276 ) on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:43AM (#30487910)
    Was it necessary to release the birth date of the users? As if the day of the month you were born in would matter in which movies you liked? No more than month and year should have been included, probably no more than the year.

    The problem is most people don't think, and those that do, don't think about what they're doing from a security standpoint. "Will this work?" or "Will this be safe?" is vastly different from "Can this be abused?" or even "Is all of this really necessary?"
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:52AM (#30488002)

    Not everyone is as broad minded as big city folks.

    Nor is everyone as small minded as big city folks who, for all their self-proclaimed open-mindedness, are often anything but.

  • by CoderJoe ( 97563 ) * on Friday December 18, 2009 @11:53AM (#30488022)

    While I don't agree with the leap, I think I can kinda see where they got the idea. She prefers chicks and doesn't want anyone to know. Because she doesn't want anyone to know, she obviously has done something wrong, etc.

    It is all a load of hogwash. That's the same logic that comes to the conclusion that if you use an envelope to mail something, you must be doing something wrong.

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." -- Bertrand Russell