Last week, a three-panel federal appeals court decided that sharing passwords to online streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, or HBO Go is crime subject to prosecution under the United States Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
The decision came as a result of a case involving David Nosal, an employee at the headhunting firm of Korn/Ferry International who continued to access the company's candidate database -- Searcher -- using the password of his former assistant.
According to Vice's Jason Koebler, the prosecution's case relied on a clause in the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that stated that made it a criminal act to "knowingly and with intent to defraud access a protected computer without authorization."
In his dissenting opinion, Judge Stephen Reinhardt noted that, when applied to streaming services, this would make millions of Americans "unwitting federal criminals," since it is unclear who, exactly, is providing the "authorization" required by the statute.
"In the everyday situation that should concern us all," Judge Reinhardt wrote, "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."
"Such a person," he continued, "accessing an account with the express authorization of its holder, would believe that he was acting not just lawfully but ethically."
As Variety's Todd Spangler explained, however, neither Netflix nor HBO Go are likely to use the new interpretation of this clause to prosecute users who share their passwords.
"We love people sharing Netflix, whether they're two people on a couch or ten people on a couch," CEO Reed Hastings said in January. Moreover, Netflix's interface allows account owners to create up to five profiles per account, meaning that it is designed to be shared, even if the terms of service indicate that the account owner "should not reveal their password to anyone."