Need to know
- Netflix gathers information about you in several ways
- For the most part, Netflix appears to be above board with its current privacy practices
- Netflix will soon introduce an ad-supported tier, which could change things
Like most big tech companies, Netflix gathers and tracks information about you as you use its service. Getting to know your viewing habits helps improve your viewing experience by showing you more of what you like, but the data gathering goes further than that.
You provide some information yourself when you sign up, while other information is collected automatically in the background. And then there's some that Netflix collects from third parties.
But how does all this data gathering affect your privacy?
We looked at Netflix's privacy statement and approached the company with any questions it raised. Here's what we found.
Information you give to Netflix
When you sign up to Netflix, you provide the streaming service with data such as your name, payment method, contact information and phone number. If you choose to jump-start your recommendation algorithm, you can let Netflix know a number of titles you're interested in.
You might also participate in surveys or engage with customer support staff, during which you offer additional information about yourself.
How Netflix recommends titles
It's no secret that Netflix keeps tabs on what you watch so it can make recommendations based on your personal tastes. It also tracks when you watch certain types of content and for how long.
This information is used to decide which titles it includes in each row on a menu page. It also determines the order in which the titles are positioned (ranked from left to right), and the order in which the rows appear on the page (ranked from top to bottom).
But when you use the search function, the results are based on what other users looking for similar terms have selected, rather than your personal recommendation algorithm.
Netflix doesn't use socio-demographic data (such as age, race or gender) when making title recommendations.
How to search specific Netflix categories
Netflix's suggestions can be accurate, but also restrictive. Browsing for content outside of your algorithm can be time-consuming and frustrating if you use the user interface as intended.
If you'd prefer more direct control over the categories or genres you can peruse, jump on a web browser and use specific URLs to get your results. For example, netflix.com/browse/genre/10702 will give you "Spy Action & Adventure". Replace the numbers at the end of that URL with 5230 for "Australian Movies" or 5349 for "Historical Documentaries" and so on.
To find these search options, do a web search for "secret Netflix URLs" to discover plenty of websites with huge lists of categories to choose from. It's not certain that any site has the complete set, and some links have been shut down over the years (such as the sorely missed 8742 "Cool Moustaches" category).
Hide your viewing history and change your algorithm
Other users of your account can access your profile and see your viewing history, unless you lock your profile using parental controls.
But you can hide this information. Open Netflix via a web browser and go to Account. In the Profile & Parental Controls section, expand your profile and click View next to "Viewing Activity".
To hide a title, click the Hide icon to the right of "Report a problem". You can also click Hide all at the bottom of the page to hide all your viewing activity.
After 24 hours of being hidden, a title will no longer be used to make recommendations to you, unless you play it again.
Other data Netflix collects
Netflix collects non-viewing data from your interactions with its service and from third parties.
This data can include which devices you use, any devices on your local network, IP address, interactions with advertising, rough location at each login, and more.
You can request Netflix send you the information it has about you by visiting the Netflix Get My Info page.
We did this and the amount of information is extensive, but didn't appear to contain anything alarming or unexpected.
The personal information we downloaded had no socio-demographic details such as age, gender, nationality, occupation, education, relationship or family status, sexuality or political preferences.
The only data of this kind Netflix appears to use is aggregate data for research purposes. This includes interviews and panels from people who consent to provide information, but Netflix claims this is separate from their service and doesn't include personal information associated with individual members.
Location information seems limited to an approximation based on your IP address each time you use Netflix. We saw no evidence of the precise GPS tracking used by other companies such as Google or Facebook, among others, via mobile devices like smartphones.
Netflix told us it doesn't ask for or receive home addresses in connection with its streaming service.
Sharing your data
Given Netflix doesn't appear to collect much personal information, there isn't too much to share.
When it does, this sharing seems limited to necessary activities such as linking with your internet provider, voice-assistant platforms, security and providing customer service, among others.
While Netflix's privacy statement can be vague, it doesn't specify some of the data gathering and sharing practices commonly used by big tech. These include things like precise location tracking, sharing personal details with third parties for the purpose of advertising, and collecting and using an individual's socio-demographic information to push content.
Netflix doesn't appear to sell your data to advertisers, but there's no guarantee things will stay this way. The streaming service has announced plans to launch an ad-supported subscription tier for a lower price sometime soon.
Given how effective personal details can be for targeting people with curated ads, Netflix would be passing up a potentially large commercial opportunity if it didn't make use of the wealth of information it has, or could gather, about its users to boost the performance of this new ad-supported subscription tier.
Netflix hasn't confirmed how this ad tier will calculate which ads to display and to whom, so we'll have to wait and see.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.