The Switchboard: Is Netflix’s algorithm a way to hide its thin library?


(Robert Galbraith/Reuters, files)

Published every weekday, the Switchboard highlights five tech policy stories you need to read.

Thousands of visitors to yahoo.com hit with malware attack, researchers say. Our own Timothy B. Lee reported that researchers observed Yahoo's advertising servers distributing malware to hundreds of thousands of users over the last few days. "The attack appears to be the work of malicious parties who have hijacked Yahoo's advertising network for their own ends" using a Java security hole, he wrote. But if you were in the United States, you probably weren't affected.

Netflix’s dumbed-down algorithms. Felix Salmon at Reuters has an interesting column responding to the Atlantic's breakdown of Netflix's mind-boggling 90,000 plus categories. Rather than seeing it as a successful attempt to "reverse engineer Hollywood," Salmon thinks of it as a shrewd cost-cutting measure. "Netflix’s big problem, it seems to me, is that it can’t afford the content that its subscribers most want to watch," he argues, saying that this cost-limited library is likely one of the reasons the streaming service dropped a self-selected queue. "So Netflix has been forced to attempt a distant second-best: scouring its own limited library for the films it thinks you’ll like, rather than simply looking for the specific movies which it knows (because you told it) that you definitely want to watch."

The NSA refuses to deny spying on members of Congress. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently sent a letter to the NSA asking if they were spying on members of Congress. The Switch's Brian Fung asked the agency about Sanders's inquiry, and an NSA spokesman told him, "Members of Congress have the same privacy protections as all U.S. persons." That answer will likely be cold comfort to Sanders, Fung argues, because "if members of Congress are treated no differently than other Americans, then the NSA likely keeps tabs on every call they make as well."

All our phone calls will soon travel over the Internet. Here’s AT&T’s plan to test that out. Telephone services have been transmitting calls over copper wiring basically since the technology was invented. But over the next decade, telecom regulators will be allowing them to start moving that information as packets over the same infrastructure as the Internet. And "AT&T has now begun planning for its own trials" to figure out just how well that will work, reports The Switch's Brian Fung.

Listen to Pandora, and it listens back. Online music radio service Pandora is using music choices to target behavioral advertising, reports Natasha Singer at The New York Times. "After years of customizing playlists to individual listeners by analyzing components of the songs they like, then playing them tracks with similar traits, the company has started data-mining users’ musical tastes for clues about the kinds of ads most likely to engage them."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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