Entertainment Companies Accused of Tracking Viewer Habits

Chicago lawyer files class action lawsuits claiming several media companies keeping viewer's information longer than they are supposed to

How many movies, TV episodes, sports highlights, cartoons and YouTube clips did you watch today? If you aren't counting, there's someone who is. While you're watching your favorite entertainment, they are watching you -- compiling what is known as your "Digital Dossier."

Just how valuable is it?

The dossiers of millions of viewers are translated into big money to businesses that aggregate and share that data. The question is: are the media companies who share that viewing information violating a federal law? A wave of recent lawsuits against major media companies accuse them of violating the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was crafted to protect consumers' personally identifiable viewing habits.

"They are actually taking this very personal, very real, and widespread information and they're distributing it to third parties. That's a very scary thing, " says plaintiff's attorney Rafey Balabanian.

Balabanian is a lawyer at a Chicago firm that has filed class action lawsuits against several media companies including Netflix, Redbox, Disney, ESPN and CNN. The lawsuits allege that not only are media companies sharing what they know about consumer viewing habits, but that they also keep this information longer they are supposed to.

"The statute's clear about that." Balabanian says. "That is a risk as far as the information falling into the wrong hands, the information being compromised."

The VPPA was passed in 1988 after failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork became outraged when a newspaper published a list of videos he and his wife rented from a Washington, DC rental store. The Act prohibits the release of personally identifiable rental information without consent, and requires companies to destroy it "as soon as practicable."

Northwestern law professor Jim Speta says while the 25-year old law struggles to keep up with the ever-changing stream of technology, the intent to protect privacy remains the same today as when it was crafted. He says consumers would be wise to pay attention to it.

"The reason one might care is that a lot can be learned about you by simply aggregating all of the videos you've watched," Speta says. "People look up things on youtube when they're trying to solve a problem in their lives. They look up questions about being pregnant, they look up questions about being depressed. Really personal pieces of information they wouldn't necessarily share."

Speta says the thorny legal issue centers on the question of what is truly PII -- Personally Identifiable Information, unique to a consumer, such as names, addresses, credit information and video viewing habits. Many media companies say they anonymize the data, or strip out any details that could track back to an actual viewer before they share it.

Recent lawsuits filed against several media companies allege flagrant violations of the VPPA, such as compromising PII, and holding on to the digital dossiers of millions of customers much longer than is allowed by law.

For example, in one lawsuit Redbox was accused of keeping PII of millions of customers indefinitely, and using it to market and advertise to them. ESPN and Disney's streaming device was accused of transmitting P-I-I to third party data analytics companies that then sell it.

In court documents, ESPN agrees it streams information to a third-party aggregator but says the data is not identifiable down to an actual viewer. Netflix and Redbox denied any violation of the VPPA.

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