Can Netflix Tell If You’re Gay By The Movies You Rent?

You thought all you had to worry about with Netflix was a big old scratch across “The Nanny Diaries” DVD, didn’t you? But be warned: if you’re LGBT and still in the closet, competitors in Netflix’s recommendations contest might be on to you.

According to the tech blog Switched, “Jane Doe,” a closeted lesbian mother, filed a lawsuit against Netflix last week because she claims the DVD rental company is violating consumers’ privacy by inadvertently making their personal business, like sexual orientation, known to the public. The lawsuit seeks $2,500 for each of Netflix’s customers, which are now over two million people. Surely you’ve heard about Netflix’s big contest (“The Netflix Prize“) to create a better recommendation system? Earlier this year, the contest awarded $1 million to a team of researchers who used 100 million movie ratings from almost half a million subscribers to invent a movie recommendation system that was more than 10 percent accurate than the one Netflix already uses.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Netflix, the site asks a user to rate every movie she has seen on a scale of one to five and then offers recommendations based on how much she likes a certain genre or actor/actress. Someone who rates “Garden State” highly, for example, might be recommended other romantic comedies starring Natalie Portman.)

The data Netflix gave to the contestants had been scrambled to keep users’ IDs secret. But despite that, two contestants who were researchers from the University of Texas were able to unscramble it. They apparently cross-referenced reviews written on Netflix with reviews written on movie website and discovered the identities, political leanings and even sexual orientation of some of Netflix’s users. That wasn’t supposed to be part of the contest, but it nevertheless happened. Hence, why in the “Doe vs. Netflix” lawsuit, Doe complained Netflix is offering up too much of customers’ private information, which contestants may use and reveal elsewhere. A user might not want it accidentally made public she is, say, a lesbian or a Republican or whatever.

Ah, life in the Big Brother age … ain’t it grand? I guess the only way to be completely private anymore is to never do anything online, ever. [Switched, Wired]