In-the-Closet Lesbian Sues Netflix for Releasing Her Movie Preferences

Illustration for article titled In-the-Closet Lesbian Sues Netflix for Releasing Her Movie Preferences

A mother of two, who also happens to be gay (and not broadcasting it), is anonymously suing Netflix for releasing her movie preferences in that contest they held awhile back. Basically, she's Borking them.

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In the course of releasing boatloads of data to contestants in its "Beat Netflix's Recommendation Algorithm" contest, they may not have disguised where that data came from as well as they should. The plaintiff, known here as Jane Doe to preserve privacy, alleges that her identity could be divined from the data, and thus threatens her civil right to privacy. Apparently, two researchers compared Netflix reviews to IMDB reviews and figured out some identities that way.

The suit seeks a cash settlement for each of the 2 million Netflix customers involved, and also seeks to stop the upcoming sequel to the original Netflix contest. We'll keep you updated on the suit—it's a pretty interesting one, for sure. [Wired]

DISCUSSION

poop-cooper-old
Poop Cooper

So.

I started writing a rant about this when I decided to do some research. In the future, I recommend not doing this. It only keeps you up hours after forgetting why you were so passionate to begin with, and now I know a ton of useless facts about this case. Facts that I will share with you now, because there were a ton of unanswered questions and I didn't want them unanswered anymore.

Basically, back in 2007 Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov publish a paper called "How To Break Anonymity of the Netflix Prize Dataset." In it, they say that even though Netflix replaces all of the user info with anonymous data (i.e. "Poop Cooper" is replaced with "User #23486") if you happen to already know someone's identity and a few of the movies this person liked or disliked, "you can use the Netflix dataset to find their entire movie ...."

So, let's say one day I tell myself, "Self, I need to know every movie Jane Doe has watched since 2005," all I would need to know are 6 obscure movies Jane Doe liked and disliked, when she rated those movies. And have a copy of the Netflix data set. And Jane Doe needs to have been part of the limited data set that was released to the public. Oh, and Jane Doe needs to have also given me her username so that I know which one the info correlates to, otherwise once I find out User #23486 is Poop Cooper, it'll still be useless until I know Poop Cooper is Jane Doe. See? Totally not anonymous.

Now, note that that this Netflix info can't determine your sexual preference, political affiliation, y'know, none of that. But with this Netflix info I can cross reference those Netflix movie preferences with IMDB movie preferences! And if there's match, then ho-boy! Now I can know what Jane Doe has been writing on her profile at IMDB! At least, I know what a user at IMDB who likely-is-but-might-not-be Jane Doe is writing. And if this user at IMDB who may-or-may-not-be (but, I mean, it could be and probably is) Jane Doe writes in one of IMDB's forums, "I am totally gay for women and a democrat in Ohio," then bingo! I totally now know that Jane Doe is gay for women and a democrat in Ohio.

I mean, at the very least, the IMDB username that has the same preferences as the Netflix username that I assume is Jane Doe is gay for women and a democrat in Ohio. And by the transitive property of gayness, there's little chance that this can be wrong.

So nothing happens for 2 years.

Then this past August, Paul Ohm declares Netflix anonymity dead in a paper entitled "Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization." In it, he writes a lot and pretty poorly, but cites Narayanan and Shmatikov on the basis that their paper is good because, and I shit you not, because it's been "cited by other researchers." (pg 20) And then in September writes a blog post explaining the entire premise for Jane Doe's lawsuit against Netflix, stating that "Netflix has many reasons to know better, including in part, my paper and the publicity surrounding it."

Suddenly, 3 months later, there's a lawsuit! Unprecedented! Ohm must be a fucking seer! Or! Or maybe.... no, that would be crazy.

It's almost seems as if after Ohm wrote his blog post, someone came along and followed all of the instructions he outlined.

So Jane Doe, hear me out for a second. Lawsuits like this are frivolous, a waste of my money as a taxpayer and may even adversely affect the price of the Netflix service for everyone else.

Don't take the easy lawsuit some asshat outlined for you because you think it's easy money. I know this isn't about how someone might figure out you're gay, because if you really are that paranoid that someone would go through all of this particular effort to find that out, then first of all A) they probably already have their suspicions anyway, and B) you wouldn't have filed a lawsuit that begs bored bloggers to figure out who you are.

And if those bored bloggers do eventually figure out who you are, it won't be because you rented Snow Dogs.