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Your Netflix Queue: A Cyber Window Into Your Personal Life?

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You would hardly expect to have personal or confidential information compromised by simply renting movies from Netflix–at least that’s what one woman expected when she provided information that was used in a Netflix contest aimed at improving the company’s movie recommendation system. Nevertheless, the "Jane Doe" in this scenario recently filed a lawsuit against Netflix, alleging that the company broke the Video Protection Privacy Act and several California privacy laws that protected her rights to remain a closeted lesbian, among other things. The women, who chose to stay anonymous for purposes of the lawsuit, hopes to sue on behalf of a potential class. According to her complaint:

…were her sexual orientation public knowledge, it 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.

Netflix started the aforementioned contest back in September 2006 which gave 50,000 contestants two sets of data. The first set of data included 100 million movie ratings, the date of the ratings, subscribed IDs, and movie rating information from 480,000 Netflix subscribers. While the data was anonymized through a method called perturbation, two University of Texas researchers were able to glean the identities of some of the 480,000 respondents by cross-referencing data from Netflix with reviews posted on the IMDB website.

Jane Doe’s lawsuit also aims to stop Netflix’s planned second phase of the contest, which would provide even more information about Netflix users to contest participants. Specifically, it would provide information such as ZIP codes, ages and genders. Jane Doe fears that with even more information publicly available, it would be possible for someone to take that information and use it to track a person on the Internet.

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  1. Steve Lombardi says:
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    So I wondered what is that odd sounding word, “perturbation”? Checking Wikipedia,
    Perturbation or perturb may refer to any of numerous concepts in several fields:

    Perturbation theory, mathematical methods that give approximate solutions to problems that cannot be solved exactly.
    Perturbation (geology), changes in the nature of alluvial deposits over time.
    Perturbation (astronomy), alterations to an object’s orbit e.g. caused by gravitational interactions with other bodies.
    Perturbation theory (quantum mechanics), a set of approximation schemes directly related to mathematical perturbation for describing a complicated quantum system in terms of a simpler one.
    Perturbation (biology), an alteration of the function of a biological system, induced by external or internal mechanisms.
    Perturbation (economic), an alteration of the function of an economic system, induced by external or internal mechanisms.
    Perturbation (machine learning), making changes in the dataset to (re)learn a classifier (used in bagging and boosting).