Brokeback lawsuit: Netflix accused of violating privacy, releasing rental records

A class action suit filed against Netflix alleges that the video rental site released confidential information, specifically rental history, as part of a contest

A closeted lesbian mother of two, who alleges that Netflix revealed personal information about her rental history that would have allowed her to be outed, is behind a class-action lawsuit filed today that alleges that the online DVD rental service violated invasion of privacy and fair-trade laws.

The suit, filed in northern California today, alleges that Netflix turned over customer information that was supposed to be anonymous, including rental history, to contestants participating in a $1 million Netflix contest that was intended to help Netflix find a better algorithm for making recommendations. To participate, contestants were given two sets of data - which were supposed to be anonymous but apparently were hackable.

Called The Brokeback Mountain Factor, one element of the complaint notes that a team of contestants had enough information to compare to other information readily available on the Internet and not only determine who the people were but also make assumptions about their political leanings or sexual preferences. From the complaint (PDF):

Contestants were given access to a “training data set.” The training data set contained 100 million subscriber movie ratings. The ratings had been submitted by approximately 480,000 subscribers between October, 1998 and December, 2005 for approximately 18,000 movies. Each of the 100 million rating entries included a numeric identifier unique to the subscriber, movie title, movie year of release, date of subscriber rating, and the rating of one to five stars assigned by the subscriber. Contestants were also given access to a “qualifying data set.” The qualified data set contained 2.8 million ratings. Each entry contained a numeric identifier representing the subscriber, movie title, and date of subscriber rating, but it did not include the rating assigned by the subscriber. The actual subscriber ratings for the qualifying data set were known to the contest judges, who used the qualifying data set to assess the accuracy of contestants’ predictions in comparison to (the existing technology's) results.

At one point, there were more than 51,000 contestants in 186 countries.

The suit is seeking $2,500 in damages for each of the impacted subscribers. The complaint alleges that Netflix disclosed personal information of about 100 million subscribers between October 2006 and July 2009.

A spokesman for Netflix said the company does not comment on litigation matters.

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