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Sharing Passwords for Netflix, HBOGo a Federal Crime



A new federal court ruling has implications for people who use a friend’s or coworker’s password to access online streaming of movies and TV shows. According to the judges, sharing passwords to get access to data, which would even include the digital media on Netflix and HBOGo is a federal crime with fines or jail time as the penalty.

The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling last week, based on the Computer Fraud And Abuse Act (CFAA). The CFAA was designed to be an anti-hacking measure. It criminalizes people who “knowingly and with intent to defraud, accesses a protected computer without authorization, or exceeds authorized access, and (thereby) obtains anything of value,” which could be interpreted to mean access to “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.” The law requires that the access be involved in “interstate” commerce or communication, which pretty much covers anything on the Internet. CFAA sets the punishment at a fine or imprisonment of up to 10 years for some provisions and up to 20 years for others.

The specific case that the circuit court looked at did not involve streaming shows or movies. The case, United States v. Nosal, involved an ex-employee at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. David Nosal formally left the firm in 2004. However, he stayed on for one year as a contractor while preparing to launch his own competing search firm with several co-conspirators. Though their computer access was eventually revoked, the group continued to access a Korn/Ferry database with candidate information using the login information from Nosal’s former assistant, who was still employed at the firm.

Nosal was charged, under the CFAA clause that prohibits anyone from knowingly accessing a protected computer without authorization, with conspiracy, theft of trade secrets and more. He wound up sentenced to prison time, probation, and fines and restitution due of nearly $900,000.

One judge on the Court of Appeals, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, did disagree his other colleagues over concern that the ruling was broadening the CFAA’s scope. “This case is about password sharing. 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 (‘CFAA’) does not make the millions of people who engage in this ubiquitous, useful, and generally harmless conduct into unwitting federal criminals.”

In addition to hacking, CFAA has been used in the past to prosecute Terms of Service agreements violation. It was also used to pursue a research fellow at MIT, who used his authorized access to an MIT database to mass-download research papers, in violation of the school’s terms of service.

It is easy to extrapolate that the federal court ruling and these examples could mean that sharing passwords for Netflix, HBOGo and Amazon Prime access is a federal crime. HBO has expressed approval for people sharing an account in the past. But, people should be aware that the law exists and, whether at work or home, sharing passwords to give unapproved access to a computer system is actually a criminal act.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

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Legal Information Institute: 18 U.S. Code 1030 – Fraud and related activity in connection with computers
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LearnBonds: Warning! Sharing Your Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) Password is a Federal Crime

Photo courtesy of Netflix Media Center