Sharing Passwords For Video-Streaming Services Is Now Illegal

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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A court ruled it is now a federal crime to share passwords for video-streaming services like Netflix and HBOGo.

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion last week, which found that exchanging personal account information falls under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

The discrepancy was finally settled during the United States v. Nosal trial, according to Fortune Magazine Sunday. David Nosal was an employee at an executive search firm called Korn/Ferry International before he left to create a competing company with several other people in the industry. Nosal and others parsed through Korn/Ferry’s database to grab prospective candidates, even though they were not given authorization. He still continued to use the system through his former assistant’s login credentials.

Nosal was charged with multiple counts of conspiracy and theft of trade secrets under the CFAA. But this ruling has consequences that reach far beyond the criminality of a single man and his colluders.

Ninth Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown believes the verdict applies more so to Nosal’s case than all Americans who share passwords.

“The circumstances here–former employees whose computer access was categorically revoked and who surreptitiously accessed data owned by their former employer–bears little resemblance to asking a spouse to log into an email account to print a boarding pass,” the judge wrote in the majority opinion. Judges in other, potentially more complex cases, will decide if this ruling encompasses all instances of password sharing.

Stephen Reinhardt, another judge in the Ninth Circuit, drafted the dissenting opinion and stressed that this ruling “loses sight of the anti-hacking purpose of the CFAA, and despite our warning, threatens to criminalize all sorts of innocuous conduct engaged in daily ordinary citizens.” In other words, this ruling turns everyone into “unwitting federal criminals.”

The need to make this law so expansive also came into question when Aaron Swartz, a young programmer, committed suicide in 2013 after he was criminally charged for obtaining research papers from an MIT database. This technically violated the institution’s terms of service, even though he was a research fellow with official access to the database at the time.

The inherent difficulty of fairly and equally applying this law has caused some tech experts to call it one of the worst laws in technology.

Depending on what type of subscription a person gets, many video-streaming services, like Netflix, allows multiple devices and users from different locations to simultaneously view content under one account.

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Eric Lieberman