Six Lines

Netflix Privacy Research

Posted by Aaron Massey on 23 Mar 2010.

Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov, the authors of the Netflix dataset de-anonymization paper, wrote an open letter to Netflix about their recent cancellation of their second contest due to privacy concerns. It’s worth reading, and I recommend reading the comments as well. Here’s a couple of key quotes:

We never thought it would come to this. One of us has publicly referred to the dampening of research as the “worst possible outcome” of privacy studies. As researchers, we are true believers in the power of data to benefit mankind.

Although I thought Netflix (or some other big company setting up similar contests with privacy sensitive data) would eventually be litigated or threatened into canceling their research, I completely agree that dampening research is an all too unfortunate outcome of a lot of privacy research. This is a common complaint in medicine. There has to be some middle ground.

Data privacy researchers will be happy to work with you rather than against you. We believe that this can be a mutually beneficial collaboration. We need someone with actual data and an actual data-mining goal in order to validate our ideas. You will be able to move forward with the next competition, and just as importantly, it will enable you to become a leader in privacy-preserving data analysis.

As another privacy researcher, I completely agree. Real-world goals and real-world data are hard for privacy researchers to access. Collaborations like this could be really fruitful. Again, I would point to medical research as an example.