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Sharing your Netflix password might constitute a federal crime

Published Jul 7th, 2016 1:23PM EDT
Sharing Netflix Password Crime

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You might want to think twice when sharing your Netflix or HBO password with a friend or loved one, because it apparently constitutes a punishable federal crime. That’s according to a new ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that has nothing to do with online streaming sites or binge-watching sessions, but does involve the sharing of passwords.

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As Motherboard explains, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of David Nosal, saying that his use of a former coworker’s password to access one of ex-employer’s databases was an unauthorized use of a computer under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Nosal had been “hacking” his way into the firm’s online database. Judge Margaret McKeown motivated the majority’s decision by saying this case isn’t about password sharing in general, in spite of what civil liberties groups might be saying.

“Nosal and various amici spin hypotheticals about the dire consequences of criminalizing password sharing. But these warnings miss the mark in this case. This appeal is not about password sharing,” she said, adding that Nosal was not authorized by the company to access the database.

But the dissenting judge in the case, Stephen Reinhardt, says the ruling “threatens to criminalize all sorts of innocuous conduct engaged in daily by ordinary citizens.”

In his view, it’s not clear who should authorize whom. Nosal was not authorized by his former company to access online documents, but his coworker authorized him to do so by sharing that password. As Motherboard points out, Netflix authorizes you to access your account but doesn’t empower you to share your password with a friend.

“In the everyday situation that should concern us all, a friend or colleague accessing an account with a shared password would most certainly believe—and with good reason—that his access had been ‘authorized’ by the account holder who shared his password with him,” Reinhardt wrote.

He continued, “The majority does not provide, nor do I see, a workable line which separates the consensual password sharing in this case from the consensual password sharing of millions of legitimate account holders, which may also be contrary to the policies of system owners. There simply is no limiting principle in the majority’s world of lawful and unlawful password sharing.”

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.