In December 2019, Netflix premiered Bandersnatch, a choose your own adventure-style film that allowed viewers to control the outcome. As everyone rushed to try out Charlie Brooker’s interactive Black Mirror show, there was one thing most people didn’t consider: Netflix was gathering every choice they made and using it to further fuel its dominance as a streaming provider.
Netflix is a company that’s built on data. It’s common knowledge that Netflix collects data about what you view and how long you watch it for. Combined with the streaming service’s vast big data analytics capabilities, it’s why Netflix is so good at offering recommendations for what to watch next. More widely, Netflix’s data-driven programming helps to inform the TV shows it commissions. The streaming service allegedly greenlighted political drama House of Cards without even seeing a pilot.
Netflix doesn’t include adverts inside its service, despite pressure from investors and analyst predictions that it could reap a $1 billion annual windfall by doing so. But the streaming giant does collect rich data from over 200 million subscribers, and this information is so core to its service that you can’t opt out of it.
“Online content streaming is increasingly dependent on collecting a vast treasure trove of data about you,” says Pat Walshe, a data protection and privacy consultant who has researched Netflix’s use of data. On Netflix, this includes what you watched and when you watched it, where you paused, where you stopped, the devices you used to stream the content, and where you were at the time.
“Every data point says something about you,” Walshe says. “As well as offering recommendations, Netflix can use this data to understand things such as where most customers stop watching so they can improve next time.”
So what data does Netflix collect, and are there any steps you can take to make the service more private?
What Netflix knows about you
Netflix also knows your viewing habits. The streaming service will log that you binged every episode of Breaking Bad in a week, and that you abandoned Seaspiracy 20 minutes in. This sort of data is core to the personalisation Netflix prides itself on – the resulting recommendations based on what other people like you have watched. It is all done via specialist personalisation algorithms, fuelled by data about the films and TV you watch and how you interact with the service. Netflix says the recommendations system does not take into account demographic information, such as age or gender, as part of the decision making process.
In order to better understand Netflix’s data collection, I submitted a request for all the information it has on me. According to the files, Netflix knows I’m in the UK as well as my specific region, and devices I have been using including my MacBook Pro, Apple TV, Samsung TV, and sixth generation iPad. The information goes back to 2015 – which Walshe says is a long time for a company to keep data. “It raises the question of whether they should be keeping data for that long. But the more data they can accumulate, the better it is for them.”
I share a Netflix account with my husband and we use separate profiles – although these are tangled because we often watch Netflix together. Looking at my data, Rowenna Fielding, founder and director of privacy consultancy Miss IG Geek, says she could work out I am in a relationship with a man, what our income bracket is via the devices we are using, and our beliefs, values and cultural backgrounds reflected by the content we watch. She can see the location of my home via the IP address and work out when I am using a VPN.
If you share a Netflix account with a partner, flatmate or family member, you will each be able to see what the other is watching. Sharing passwords also gives others access to all your account information. In addition, if you request a download of your data, you can obtain their information – but they can’t ask Netflix for a copy of their own data unless their profile is connected to a separate email address.
Netflix’s data sharing
Netflix says it does not sell ads, member information or engage in third-party advertising.
However, while Netflix uses your data to give you a good experience, there is “no telling what everyone else is using it for”, says Fielding. She says Netflix’s privacy notice is “quite good” compared to many other online services, but she thinks it lacks adequate detail on which data is used for which purposes and how. “This means data subjects can’t determine which of their rights apply to which data and processing. It is particularly concerning in relation to use of third party services for tracking, profiling and content targeting, which represent a significant privacy risk.”
“Unless it’s clear and transparent that they don’t do something, there’s every possibility they are doing it,” says Emily Overton, managing director of data protection consultancy RMGirl. According to Netflix’s privacy notice, it or partners could do several things, she says. “Collecting data that you cannot opt out of; using that data to push marketing where consent allows to get more data; and selling data they collect to advertising agencies.”
What you can do to stop Netflix data collection
Because it is so core to the service you sign up to, there is no way to turn off personalisation on Netflix. “There is very little scope to restrict the collection of device, connection or activity information which is collected by default,” says Will Richmond-Coggan, a technology and privacy specialist at Nottingham based law firm Freeths LLP. “People will have to take a view on whether they are comfortable sharing that information with Netflix, but much of it feeds into the core functionality of the platform.”
Despite this there are some options you can enable in your account settings to increase your privacy. If you go to Account, Settings you can opt out of test participation, a setting that involves you in Netflix test scenarios such as ads for other Netflix shows.
In your Account settings, scrolling down and clicking on your profile will take you to Communications Settings, which Netflix has defaulted to On. You can turn these off by unticking the boxes, but it will stop you from receiving updates on new shows and personalised suggestions. In your profile, under Marketing Communications, you can also ensure you haven’t opted in to allowing Netflix to use your contact information “to send promotional communications on third party services”.
At the same time, under Social Settings, you can see if you have ever logged into Netflix using Facebook – a service the streaming provider no longer offers – and remove your account if so.
Another way to stop some of the data tracking is via a device ID, such as Apple’s identifier for advertisers (IDFA), which can be reset on your smartphone. On an iPhone this can be controlled using Apple’s App Tracking Transparency settings. In addition, when you are viewing Netflix on a browser, Fielding recommends using tracker blockers such as Privacy Badger, Ghostery uBlock Origin and clearing cookies.
If you share your account with others and want to hide titles from your viewing history, go to your Account, Profile & Parental Controls for the profile you want to update and Open Viewing Activity. On the Activity page, click the hide icon next to the episode, series or title you want to hide. You can also hide all of your viewing history, by selecting the Hide All option at the bottom of the page. This will hide your history from anyone with access to your account, but Netflix itself will still be able to see what you’ve watched.
There are limited controls for Netflix data collection but in the end it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it to use the service. “I’m afraid with something like Netflix your choice is very limited, but its competitors aren’t much better,” Walshe says.