The Potential Privacy Problems With YouTube’s Family Plan “Suggestion Leakage”

I love YouTube. I consider it to be a wonder of the world for an array of reasons. Its scale is — well, the technical term is “mindbogglingly enormous.” I subscribe to YouTube Premium (primarily to obliterate the ads — I don’t use ad blockers), and as far as I’m concerned it’s the best streaming service value on the planet. If I had to choose one streaming service only — it would be YouTube Premium, undoubtedly. I have something approaching 7000 favorited videos on YT, and I sometimes imagine that there’s a whole cluster in a dark corner of a Google data center singularly devoted to managing my giganormous watch history.

Does YT have problems? Yup. Some YT creators have to deal with inappropriate strikes and takedowns — I’ve tried to assist a bunch of these users with these sorts of disruptions over the years. Some people complain of bad video suggestions pushing them in dark directions — though this has never been an issue for me — the suggestions I get are generally great, though I do take time to train the algorithm as to what I do and don’t like. If you just use YT not-logged in and/or don’t train, you’ll probably get less favorable results. Basically that’s your choice.

Obviously, no technology is perfect, and at YT’s scale even if only a tiny fraction of suggestions are problematic, it can still be a large number in absolute terms. That’s life. I still love YouTube.

There’s an oddity though with YT that I think is worth mentioning. It’s not a big concern in the scheme of things, but it really shouldn’t be happening.

This relates to the YouTube Premium “Family Plan” that lets you bundle multiple separate Google accounts in a household together so that they all have the benefits of Premium, at a better price than each subscribing to Premium separately. Under FP, each of the associated accounts is free of ads, etc., but is still separate — with their own YT play history, etc. — and can view different content simultaneously (normally, a Premium account can only view content on one device at a time). 

But a strange thing can happen with Family Plan. The videos being watched by one account on the plan can affect the suggestions on other accounts on the plan, even though they should be entirely separate in this particular respect.

This is most often noticed when a topic starts to pop up in the suggestions for one FP member that are totally odd for them — for example, a subject that they never view videos about. And it turns out — if the members of the FP compare notes — that some other member of the plan was watching videos on that topic, and the YT videos/channels being watched by FP member A are showing up in the suggestions for FP member B. And so on.

Most of the time this isn’t a serious concern, and can even be interesting in terms of surfacing new topics. But of course there are intrinsic privacy considerations as well. It isn’t good policy for the YT viewing habits of different family members to be intermingled in that way, without their specifically asking for such sharing. The potential family problems that could occur as a result in some cases are fairly obvious.

This has been going on with Family Plan for years, and I’ve brought this up with Google/YT myself in the past. And the responses I’ve always gotten back have either been that “it can’t happen” or “it shouldn’t happen” and … that’s pretty much where it’s been left hanging each time.

But it does still happen (I have a new report just this morning) and yeah, it really shouldn’t.

Again, not an enormous problem in the scheme of things, but not trivial either, and it’s something that definitely should be fixed.