Is Sharing Your Passwords a Crime

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law
Is Sharing Your Passwords a Crime?

Have you ever shared a password with a friend or relative? You aren’t alone. With the increase in streaming video and other online sources of entertainment that require a membership, people across the country are sharing their account information so friends and loved ones can access paid content. Only one person is paying to utilize the service but many people benefit.

Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and more have made it easy for people to take advantage of their services, but is this legal?

According to the interpretation of at least one law, it’s not. But how concerned you should be about the matter varies depending on who you ask.

Several years ago the effort to prevent the illegal download of music led to a world in which the FBI could go after private citizens for what they were doing on their personal computers in their own homes. But these weren’t people who were viewing offensive or illegal content. It wasn’t the content at all – it was how they were acquiring it.

So are we dealing with a similar situation when it comes to video streaming services?

It might be unlikely, due in part to the fact that video streaming services don’t seem overly concerned about the practice, despite losing $500 million a year to password sharing. Netflix even allows you to set up access for different members of your family on one account. The company’s CEO Reed Hastings said people sharing an account hasn’t been a problem for the company.

HBO Chairman and Chief Executive Richard Piepler agrees and stated that even though the company doesn’t encourage password sharing, it’s also not viewed as a big enough problem to warrant the network’s attention.

Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

Of course, the companies’ lackadaisical attitudes concerning password sharing doesn’t mean lawmakers won’t take aim at the practice and do what they can to enforce copyright and patent laws. And should the companies begin to take seriously how much revenue they are losing due to password sharing, they could change their tune.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) is an anti-hacking law that, according to critics, could have inadvertently made everyone sharing Netflix passwords a criminal.

Critics of the CFAA say that criminalizing so-called unauthorized access means that the terms of service that apply to software become law. And because terms of service so often include drastic penalties and tend to be very broad, it could end up turning something that everyone does into a serious crime. Lawmakers inadvertently made it possible for someone to go to jail for 20 years for using a person’s Netflix password.

It’s rare, in the American legal system, for contract law violations to result in criminal penalties, which makes this situation even more unusual.

Under CFAA, accessing someone’s computer without that person’s permission is punishable as a felony and because most TOS agreements ban the sharing of login credentials without specifying if this means a specific device or account, the penalties, in theory, could be drastic. “Unauthorized access” has yet to be defined clearly enough for the average person to determine what he or she can or cannot legally do.

And according to those who are following court cases linked to the CFAA, the problem is only going to get more complex as more devices include microchips.

Future of Password Sharing

It’s easy to dismiss the situation as government and law enforcement overreach, considering how many people are participating in the practice of sharing passwords every day. But there might be a reason to be concerned.

Abuses of the CFAA law have happened in the past and the punishments for violating the laws are astounding. The law was originally intended to prevent hacking but could turn just about anyone into a felon. Under the law, the private right of action could make it possible for providers to package huge lawsuits into their terms of service and we’d live in a world where Amazon could sue any time someone accessed his or her Prime account.

If you’d like to learn more about the CFAA, check out this information from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.</a>

If you’ve been accused of a crime related to password sharing or account or device access, contact David Lindsey to discuss your situation.

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