How To Identify Closeted “Titanic” Fans

October 18th, 2009 by Ilya Marritz

Keeping personal medical data private is, of course, the sine qua non of gaining the American people’s trust in a system of computerized medical records. But could well-informed players with business acumen crack the code?

Probably yes, if the private movie preferences of Netflix members are taken as an example. The New York Times summarizes the findings of an academic study that examined customer information Netflix is proud to keep anonymous.

By comparing the film preferences of some anonymous Netflix customers with personal profiles on, the Internet movie database, the researchers said they easily re-identified some people because they had posted their e-mail addresses or other distinguishing information online.

Vitaly Shmatikov, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-author of the “de-anonymization” study, says the researchers were able to analyze users’ public postings and connect that to their Netflix preferences — including how a person may have rated films with controversial themes. Those are choices a person may or may not want to make public, Mr. Shmatikov said.

A weakness for Nora Ephron movies is, of course, very different from having some nasty genetic predispositions you don’t want the insurance company to know about.

One obvious area where Congress could act right away to allay fears – pass a law to forbid re-identification; there is currently no federal statute to make it illegal.

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