Sharing Your Netflix, HBO GO Passwords Could Be a Federal Crime: Find Out Why!

Orange is the New Black on Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black' on Netflix. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Your Netflix and chill session may be illegal. A new appellate court ruling on July 5 sent millions of TV binge-watchers into a panic over the fact that sharing their passwords for services like Netflix and HBO GO is now a federal crime. But the ruling hardly means that you’ll go to jail because you still use your boyfriend’s roommate’s cousin’s account.

In the case of the United States v. David Nosal, Nosal left his gig at executive search firm Korn Ferry International in 2004 to start his own competing business. After his computer credentials were revoked, he used a former coworker’s login to download huge amounts of confidential data and information from the computer system.

The majority ruled that accessing a website or computer network with someone else’s password is a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, if you access it “without authorization.” This could mean that if you log onto your friend’s HBO GO account without HBO’s permission, you unknowingly committed a crime, even if your friend said it was totally fine.

In the decision, Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote, “This appeal is not about password sharing.” However, in the dissent, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt argued that the ruling could set a precedent where anyone who shared a password would be violating the CFAA. “This case is about password sharing,” he wrote. “People frequently share their passwords, notwithstanding the fact that websites and employers have policies prohibiting it. In my view, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act does not make the millions of people who engage in this ubiquitous, useful, and generally harmless conduct into unwitting federal criminals.”

Judge Reinhardt seemed concerned that the new password sharing ruling could cause problems in the future. “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 continued. “Take the case of an office worker asking a friend to log onto his email in order to print a boarding pass, in violation of the system owner’s access policy; or the case of one spouse asking the other to log into a bank website to pay a bill, in violation of the bank’s password sharing prohibition.”

Although a Consumer Reports survey shows that 46 percent of adults share their streaming service subscriptions with non-family members, Netflix has previously said that it doesn’t see sharing passwords as a problem for their business. “As kids move on in their life, they like to have control, and as they have an income, we see them separately subscribe. It really hasn’t been a problem,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year.

HBO Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Plepler agreed that password sharing didn’t warrant too much concern. “Right now password sharing is just simply not a big number,” he told CNNMoney in 2015.

Read the full ruling on password sharing here

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