Sharing Netflix or HBO Go Passwords Is Technically a Federal Crime Under 9th Circuit Ruling

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A court ruling last week now means that the act of using someone else’s password to access an online service — including Netflix or HBO Go — without the authorization of the system’s owner may be considered a violation of federal computer law. But don’t panic: It’s not likely that subscription VOD providers will suddenly have the feds descend on people swapping their login credentials.

In a July 5 ruling in a case about a former employee at executive-search firm Korn Ferry, a three-judge panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that sharing passwords without the authorization of the system’s owner is a crime that can be prosecuted under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That would potentially make millions of Americans “unwitting federal criminals,” according to a dissenting opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt as noted by Fortune.

To Reinhardt, the appeals court’s ruling would make it illegal to engage in some common examples of password-sharing, such as logging in to a Facebook account on behalf of a friend or relative. “The majority is wrong to conclude that a person necessarily accesses a computer account ‘without authorization’ if he does so without the permission of the system owner,” he wrote in his dissent.

The trend of people freeloading off the Netflix or HBO passwords of paying subs has long been a question facing the industry, and during the Primetime Emmy Awards last year host Andy Samberg even made a joke about it. A study last year by research firm Parks Associates suggested SVOD services would stand to lose upwards of $500 million in revenue in 2015 from the practice.

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But Netflix, HBO and others have downplayed the impact of password sharing on their businesses. Indeed, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in January at the 2016 International CES that the phenomenon has not really been a significant problem, and that people who are piggybacking an another member’s account often end up later becoming paying customers. “We love people sharing Netflix whether they’re two people on a couch or 10 people on a couch,” Hastings said, per TechCrunch. “That’s a positive thing, not a negative thing.”

And other research suggests password sharing of SVOD is not at epidemic levels. A little over 4% of subscribers said they share their password outside their family circle, while 42% say they share it with family members, according to a survey of 1,007 U.S. adults conducted in April by IBM Cloud Video’s Clearleap division. About half of millennials said they have used someone else’s password to try an SVOD service like Netflix, according to the IBM survey; however, once they subscribe, they are no more likely to share their own password outside the family circle than anyone else.

Technically, according to Netflix’s terms of use, only the primary account owner is allowed to have “exclusive control” of the account, and the company says “the Account Owner should not reveal the password to anyone.” But the service is designed for sharing within a household: Netflix customers can assign up to five different profiles to different members of the family to have their own personalized experience and watchlists.

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  1. Jennifer Goltz says:

    So it’s talking about workplace passwords. Not personal use. It’s a case where he bucketed off money from one company to another. Personal use is a discriminatory. I wouldn’t share your password with EVERYONE but it’s not gonna get you in trouble for sharing something that you can’t make money off of…
    Read the disposition in the case before you mouth off about how you can’t share any passwords. It specifically says database… Like work.. Not Netflix where it’s a library.

  2. Some guy who read the actual court brief says:

    This is a case of the writer explisitly misinforming people the case had nothing to do with password sharing for owned accounts ie netflex/hbo, whitch is explisitly stated in the court breifing. This case was the about an indevidual cercomventing recended access to a private network by using another persons password

  3. Dunstan says:

    Once again, there is no reason to access these sites using someone else’s password or log in info. You can find anything you want online for free.

  4. creek0512 says:

    Hard to imagine Netflix being interested in prosecuting anyone for this, would be a public relations nightmare. Cable logins on the other hand are much more valuable, and it’s not hard to imagine Comcast or other cable monopolies, who are already despised, going after people.

  5. jbiker10 says:

    Just use the Hilary Defense: There’s is no provable intent, my sharing of my password results in extreme carelessness.

  6. jayarby says:

    That’s OK, I’ll use the Hillary “not intentional” defense. That’ll work, right?

  7. EE says:

    Netflix has terrible movie choices anyways.

  8. Truth says:

    Yeah it’s America, pretty much anything you do is a crime somewhere here.

  9. Melissa says:

    rofl. How’s that going to work when Netflix themselves created separate profiles for people who access that password. Yeah… that’s not going to work.

  10. C says:

    Go figure, the Feds heavy handed tactics at work again to control! Totally sick of their bloody actions.

  11. They aren’t just saying Netflix is a crime. They’re saying anything and anything, such as if I were to use my fiancé’s login credentials to log into our bank account, even though my name is on the one account. If I didn’t use my own credentials, it would technically be considered a federal crime.

    Anything and everything that has an online password is now a crime to log into, if it’s not your own.

    You have multiple users because you can set up your family members (who live with you). Each of our kids have their own, so that they have their own watch list and recently watched, plus we have one. But after this ruling, for say my mother to login with our Netflix, is now a federal crime.

    The article clearly states one controlling profile and those for other users within the household. The CEO clearly states he doesn’t care how many people are ON THE COUCH watching the show, not that he doesn’t care how many people on DIFFERENT couches are watching the same account.

    Not arguing for the article, just stating the facts in the article don’t support your statements.

  12. nerdrage says:

    Cliiiickbait. And old.

  13. Tina Belcher says:

    This article is such click bait. It clearly states in it that the judges found that sharing passwords WITHOUT authorization is a crime. If I give my password to someone intentionally, that is authorization and therefore is not a crime. Going to black market websites and using a stolen password for Netflix, Hulu or HBO GO is a crime though.

    The article doesn’t mention that this guy in question used his former coworker’s password that he did not knowingly give him and he used it to log in and steal information from the company.

    • creek0512 says:

      You are not understanding, under this interpretation you cannot share your password without the system owner’s authorization. You are not the system owner when you pay for a SVOD service, that would be Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc.; you are only a subscriber.

  14. Peter Griffin says:

    I just cancelled my Netflix subscription since they are raising their prices to everyone. Even though I’ve been a customer for the past 13 years

  15. Bob Wager says:

    This is crap. I have a sub that allows multiple users on Netflix. I can stream on multiple devices simultaneously under one login, by their agreement and offer. I pay the sub and hand out the access to those I trust and, because of their restrictions, cannot access more than they allow. Who wasted this money? I can’t really seem, based on the CEOs statement on this, that Netfilx had any involvement in this garbage.

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