United Artists
Lilian Min
July 10, 2016 10:54 am

Cards on the table: Most of us, if we have Netflix accounts, share our accounts with multiple family members and friends. Or, if we don’t have our own accounts, we have a connect through a friend’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin, or some other weird relationship like that. But a federal court has recently ruled that sharing passwords, not just for streaming sites like Netflix, HBO GO, and Hulu but in general, could be a criminal charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

Now, the case that prompted this ruling is actually pretty specific — a recruiter, after leaving his firm, accessed a former colleague’s computer by using his password. This seems like a pretty cut-and-dry case of “I used someone’s passwords and they didn’t give me permission to do so,” but because in this case, the unauthorized password access was used for a particularly nefarious end.

However, this overall court ruling has the unintended side effect of making all sorts of unauthorized password sharing illegal. Because the issue here is in consenting to revealing your password; that ex-boyfriend’s cousin technically hasn’t given you permission to access their Netflix account, so if anything happened to their computer and/or their online profiles, a court may ask to look into who has related passwords, whether both explicitly (“Hey, here’s my password”) and unknowingly (“Here’s my ex-boyfriend’s cousin’s password”).

Now, you might think that Netflix and other streaming executives would be totally on board with this ruling, as criminalizing password sharing would in theory lead to more people adding onto their own subscriptions. But most executives are pretty chill about sharing passwords, and in fact, these streaming services usually restrict the number of accounts active at any time to implicitly put password-sharers in a bind.

So, while we wouldn’t change or delete your streaming accesses (depending if you’re an account owner or a moocher), we’d all do well to keep a closer eye on who and where our passwords are traveling out to. After all, there is something to be said about the fact that many people have the same passwords for multiple accounts — so if nothing else, pass around passwords that aren’t the same as the ones you have for multiple places.

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