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Class Accuses Netflix of Willful Data Breach

(CN) - A class action claims Netflix perpetrated the "largest voluntary privacy breach to date" when it handed over personal information about its subscribers' film-viewing habits to thousands of contestants for a $1 million software development prize.

The primary plaintiffs in the case, which include an anonymous lesbian mother, say they are worried about what they call the "Brokeback Mountain Factor"- that their personal viewing and online reviewing habits will reveal their sexual and religious preferences and other private information that Netflix had promised to keep to itself.

"To some, renting a movie such as 'Brokeback Mountain' or even 'The Passion of the Christ' can be a personal issue that they would not want published to the world," according to the complaint in San Jose Federal Court.

"A Netflix member's movie data may reveal that member's private information such as sexuality, religious beliefs, or political affiliations. Such data may also reveal a member's personal struggles with issues such as domestic violence, adultery, alcoholism, or substance abuse."

Netflix sponsored a contest in 2006 to try to improve software that predicts viewing habits. Thousands of computer scientists and others were given access to data that included 2.8 million subscriber ratings. Each entry had a numeric identifier representing the subscriber, the movie title, and the date of the rating.

Later, academic researchers were able to figure out the names of some of the subscribers through cross-referencing the Netflix ratings with similar ratings available elsewhere online, the complaint states.

"Although Netflix touted its privacy protections to induce consumers to become subscribers, Netflix failed to disclose that it would release the movie titles, genres, rental dates, and ratings they assigned to movies, along with other information about their rentals - without consent - as fodder for a contest to improve the predictive value of their recommendation system," the complaint states.

"The plaintiffs' and class members' movie data and ratings, which were released without authorization or consent, have now become a permanent public record on the Internet, free to be manipulated and exposed at the whim of those who have the database."

Class representatives Nelly Valdez-Marquez and Paul Navarro of Texas, Anthony Sinopoli of California, and "Jane Doe," a lesbian mother from Ohio, allege violations of the Video Privacy Protection Act, unjust enrichment, public disclosure of private facts, and violations of state consumer laws.

The unnamed lesbian plaintiff says she seeks anonymity because she does not want her "interest in gay- and lesbian-themed films broadcast to the world."

The class seeks a jury trial and an injunction stopping Netflix from going forward with a second contest that could leak their personal information again. They want each class member reimbursed with no less than $2,500 of profits "wrongfully obtained" through the contest, destruction of Netflix records associated with their preferences, and other damages.

Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.

The class is represented by David Parisi of Sherman Oaks.

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