Jane Bradley: Big Tech is starting to spill our online secrets

Netflix revealed one viewer had watched the Bee Movie countless times and she was soon identified
Netflix revealed one viewer had watched the Bee Movie countless times and she was soon identified
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Private firms like Netflix and Spotify are amassing huge amounts of data about our personal viewing habits, raising questions about how they use it, writes Jane Bradley

We’ve all done it. Streamed a film or TV series more times than we would ever admit, even to our closest friends.

We don’t necessarily want our work colleagues to know that we have a private penchant for re-streaming the early episodes of the Gilmore Girls (my husband is fairly touchy about it for some reason, anyhow). Perhaps we don’t want people to know that we secretly watch Peppa Pig even after the kids are in bed – or have viewed Dirty Dancing, armed with a hanky and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, every Saturday night for the past decade.

But now, the secrets of Netflix users with the oddest habits are no longer safe: the company has started using its customers’ watching habits in a marketing campaign.

A news release which told of the strangest viewing habits of its watchers worldwide, revealed that one member was so enamoured by Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl that they watched it 365 days in a row. Meanwhile, another viewer, revealed only as living “in Europe”, was dubbed the continent’s most prolific “re-watcher” when it emerged that they had viewed children’s hit Bee Movie 357 times over a 12-month period.

Yet the wonders of modern technology shrank the world once more and quickly, the Bee Movie fan was outed as being Scots mum Gemma Chalmers, 29, who readily admitted that the 2007 film about a bee which sues humans for stealing honey was the “only thing” that will stop her baby, ten-month-old Jaxson, from crying.

“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the Netflix story, my friends were tagging me in posts saying – this has to be you,” said Ms Chalmers, from Peterhead, admitting that her friends’ knowledge of her son’s addiction to Bee Movie had resulted in her public identification.

READ MORE: Netflix pokes fun at its users as it publishes year in review

The video streaming service’s use of a year’s user data from November 2016 was an echo of an advertising campaign thought up by audio rival Spotify in the US. Under the banner “2018 Goals”, Spotify tweeted gems such as “Take a page from the 3,445 people who streamed the ‘Boozy Brunch’ playlist on a Wednesday this year” and “Deliver burns as well as the person who streamed Bad Liar 86 times the day Sean Spicer resigned,” referencing the departure of Donald Trump’s spin doctor in July.

When quizzed, the firm pointed out that it had asked anyone whose playlist name they had used, for permission – and found that most people were only too happy to oblige.

Netflix took its own incarnation of the campaign onto Twitter, where its official account tweeted “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?”

But, like Spotify, Netflix came under fire for its personal marketing ploy. “Not funny, not charming, not clever.

Whoever you are – writing for @netflix – you’re about to lose your job,” wrote one Twitter user, operating under the moniker “Lean.Legal”.

Erik Wecks agreed with him. “I just want to ask in what marketing class they teach you to shame your most reliable customers?” he asked.

READ MORE: Revealed: the top 20 Netflix shows being watched the fastest

While Ms Chalmers seemed to take the reveal quite well, there would undoubtedly be others who would not want what they do in the privacy of their own homes unveiled to the world. I have to admit that if my viewing habits had been one of those broadcast to a global audience, I would have felt somewhat uncomfortable. True, it is unlikely that anyone would have known it was me, but I would have known – my friends or family may have twigged – and that would be enough. Some companies are undoubtedly taking their use of data too far. Last week, I was in Ikea looking for storage boxes to fit in a shoe chest I had bought from a different company a few years ago. Having forgotten to take the measurements of the item of furniture before I left home, I googled the chest on the website of the furniture company I bought it from and looked up the information I needed to choose the right size of storage. Within a few hours, an email had popped up in my inbox: from the furniture company where I had bought my shoe box. “Where have you been, Jane? It’s been an awfully long time since you popped by and saw us so we were wondering whether you fancied a visit?” the firm wrote.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but unlikely. Slightly creepy? Yes.

What was most strange was that my phone is relatively new – it is definitely not the one I had three years ago when I ordered the furniture in the first place, hence I cannot have inadvertently or automatically logged into my account on the furniture retailer’s website.

The only option, as far as I can see, is that they somehow linked my customer account with the email address I use to permanently log into the Facebook app on my phone.

We are all used to targeted ads on Facebook. Yes, it’s invasive, it’s annoying. It ruins surprise presents when you share a computer or tablet with your other half. On the other hand, it is sometimes helpful – you do see things you wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

However, for companies to openly flaunt the level of data they hold on us all, is a whole other level – and a step too far. We know they have this data, after all, it is fairly simple technology. Yet, while it is acceptable to a certain extent for companies like Netflix to use our viewing habits to make personal recommendations within the comfort of our own login – or alert us when a new series of our favourite programme is being released – we need to put our foot down.

Its ad campaign was, admittedly, quite funny, but when does it stop being funny and become invasive? I would argue right about now.