Good and bad of $1 million Netflix prize

AT&T Labs, Yahoo Research celebrate win, but one industry watcher says Netflix should cancel its follow-up contest due to privacy concerns

AT&T Labs-Research, Yahoo Research and other members of the Bellkor's Pragmatic Chaos team are celebrating their win in the 3-year-long Netflix Prize contest. They earned $1 million in beating out 40,000 other teams from 186 countries to improve upon Netflix's Cinematch system for predicting which movies customers will like or dislike.

No sooner did Netflix hand out its prizes than it announced Netflix Prize 2, which will reward winners at 6 and 18 months.

Not everyone is thrilled with the new contest, however. Blogger Paul Ohm (an associate professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School) says he respected the effort Netflix went to to protect customer data handed to contestants in Netflix Prize 1, but has serious privacy concerns about Netflix Prize 2, which involves dishing out demographic, gender and other data. He writes at Freedom to Tinker:

Netflix should cancel this new, irresponsible contest, which it has dubbed Netflix Prize 2. Researchers have known for more than a decade that gender plus ZIP code plus birthdate uniquely identifies a significant percentage of Americans (87% according to Latanya Sweeney's famous study.) True, Netflix plans to release age not birthdate, but simple arithmetic shows that for many people in the country, gender plus ZIP code plus age will narrow their private movie preferences down to at most a few hundred people. Netflix needs to understand the concept of "information entropy": even if it is not revealing information tied to a single person, it is revealing information tied to so few that we should consider this a privacy breach.

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