Netflix users should know that the sharing their passwords with someone else is now a federal offense. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on July 5 which indicates that, in part, sharing passwords is a crime under the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act), reports Fortune.
Why sharing a Netflix password is a crime
According to a dissenting opinion on the case, the decision makes millions of people who share passwords for services like HBOGo and Netflix “unwitting federal criminals.” The decision came in the case of David Nosal, who left Korn/Ferry International, a headhunter firm, in 2004 after being denied a promotion. He stayed at the firm as a contractor for a year but at the same time was preparing to launch a competing search firm along with many co-conspirators.
They continued to access a Korn/Ferry candidate database known as Searcher, even when all of their computer access was revoked. They did it by using the login credentials of a former assistant of Nosal, who was still working for the firm. Eventually, Nosal was charged with theft of trade secrets, conspiracy and three counts under the CFAA. Nosal was sentenced to probation and prison time and ordered to pay nearly $900,000 in fines and restitution.
CFAA: the worst law in technology
Nosal’s conviction under the CFAA relies on a clause that punishes anyone who intentionally and “with intent to defraud, accesses a protected computer without authorization.” That clause, in particular, has been applied to several cases that fall far short of actual systems tampering, even when the CFAA is understood frequently to be an anti-hacking law, according to Fortune.
The most famous case was of Aaron Swartz, a young programmer charged with mass-downloading research papers from an MIT database. He committed suicide thereafter. The law was used even when it was known that Swartz was then a research fellow at MIT and had authorized access to the involved database. The New Yorker’s Tim Wu described the CFAA as the “worst law in technology” because of cases like Swartz.
Stephen Reinhardt, one of the Ninth Circuit Judges, appeared to agree with the interpretation in his dissenting opinion. Reinhardt said the new decision makes “consensual password sharing” a prosecutable offense as well. Reinhardt noted that the decision “loses sight of the anti-hacking purpose of the CFAA, and . . . threatens to criminalize all sorts of innocuous conduct engaged in daily by ordinary citizens.”
Innocuous conduct, according to Fortune, includes sharing your Netflix password willingly or giving your best friend your HBO Go login to stream Game of Thrones.