You may have heard of the Netflix contest where dozens of movie choices and ratings made by Netflix customers were released to contestants in the hopes they could write a program to better predict the individual's future movie preferences. Thanks to the release of this personal information online, Netflix is now the subject of a class action suit, Doe v. Netflix, for "the largest voluntary privacy breach to date."
Private information, such as a one's video rental history is actually protected under the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was inspired by the first historical incidence of "borking." During hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court in the 1980's, a reporter went to the local video rental store patronized by Professor Robert Bork, obtained a list of his recent movie picks -- and published them. While it turned out his movie preferences were "films unremarkable for anything salacious," this breach so appalled Congress they passed a law protecting the privacy of movie rentals. And please, don't let the quaint little anachronism "video movie rentals" confuse you; this means you, Netflix.
Despite the fact that Netflix claimed to have "anonymize[d]" the rental information provided to contestants, researchers were easily able to create a method to start linking the data provided with customer names. And now, a second contest is on the horizon which will provide information including gender, zip code, age and movie ratings. According to Wired, 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. And that just might amount to a breach of privacy under the VPPA, among other things.
And why would anyone care if others knew about their movie choices? The suit calls this the "Brokeback Mountain Factor." The plaintiffs claim that movie choices often mirror very personal struggles with, or issues about divorce, adultery, sexuality or abuse. The lead plaintiff "Jane Doe" is a lesbian mother who claims that the Netflix release of information make it possible for her to be outed, which would "negatively affect her ability to pursue her livelihood and support her family and would hinder her and her children’s ability to live peaceful lives..."
The complaint also claims that due to the Netflix contest, "[p]laintiffs’ and class members’ movie data and ratings, which were released without authorization or consent, have now become a permanent, public record on the Internet, free to be manipulated and exposed at the whim of those who have the Database." That idea is scarier than Chainsaw Massacre III -- not that I rented it.