Netflix cancels recommendation contest over privacy

Not as anonymous as you think

Netflix has canceled a contest designed to improve its movie recommendation system out of concern it might compromise the privacy of its customers.

The decision was announced in a blog post, published Friday, by Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt. A previous competition that handed over anonymous user data to more than 50,000 contestants ended poorly after researchers showed it was possible to identify individuals' viewing habits by connecting the dots.

"In the past few months, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asked us how a Netflix Prize sequel might affect Netflix members' privacy, and a lawsuit was filed by KamberLaw LLC pertaining to the sequel," Hunt wrote. "In light of all this, we have decided to not pursue the Netflix Prize sequel that we announced on August 6, 2009."

Netflix's previous contest paid $1m for the winning submission to better predict movies users would like by crunching data of their previous selections. Researchers from the University of Texas quickly identified several users by comparing reviews in the Netflix data to those posted on the Internet Movie Database.

Late last year, a closeted lesbian mom sued Netflix for publishing data that could be used to out her. The Federal Trade Commission has also voiced its concern.

The Netflix contest is only the latest incident to highlight the hazards of data that's supposedly been scrubbed clean of any identifying information. In 2006, AOL released 20 million search queries that removed names and other personal identifiers from 658,000 users that nonetheless could be used to identify the people making the searches. Redacted GPS data may not be as anonymous as many think either, researchers have shown. ®

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