The Real Victim of Password Sharing Isn’t Netflix—It’s You

updated Sep 23, 2019
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Credit: Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

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Back in 2013, illustrator Sunny Eckerle and her now-husband had a friend stay with them who graciously shared his HBO Go password. They added it to their Apple TV. Over the years, despite changing devices, the account kept connecting, and they kept watching.

“You couldn’t just subscribe to HBO as you can now,” Eckerle says. “You had to know someone who had TV cable service and also paid for HBO, which not many broke 20-somethings living in Brooklyn did.”

After six years, the password stopped working. Eckerle wasn’t sure why, but they started joking around with friends about it. “We were trying to figure out which friends would have HBO, but wouldn’t judge us for being deadbeats and wanting it for free,” she says. Eckerle’s strategy worked, and one of their friends shared her dad’s login that she’d been using.

Let’s be honest—we’ve all done it. A recent survey found that 14 percent of Netflix users in the United States are using the service without paying for it. For Hulu and Amazon, it’s 11 and 6 percent, respectively. And millennials are more likely than others to borrow passwords to access streaming services. 

Stories like Eckerle’s resonate with anyone who’s ever used a streaming service, but how safe is it to share your passwords with friends, family, and—in some cases—strangers? And more importantly: Is it legal?

There Are Risks to Password Sharing

“Listen, we all share passwords. To pretend that we won’t do that is naïve,” says identity theft and cybersecurity expert John Sileo. “The key is to share it with people that we trust deeply and have a long term relationship with.”

Exchanging streaming credentials can compromise more than just your watch recommendations. “Sharing a single password is often giving away the key to many of your passwords,” he says. “Most people use the same or similar passwords across different sites.” Even when you’re using comparatively stronger passwords like “IL0v3THE$0undOfMu$ic,” if that same cipher also unlocks your online banking profile, you could be putting yourself at major risk.

“Sharing a password is like sharing your identity,” Sileo says. “No one knows when it’s you or someone else, so your liability is quite high.”

In a Pew Research Center study, 39 percent of those surveyed said that they use the same or similar passwords for all of their accounts. And 25 percent admitted that they often use simpler, easier to remember passwords that are less secure than they’d like. That kind of poor password hygiene can make you regret offering your Prime password to a friend who hasn’t caught a glimpse of Mrs. Maisel.

“Even friends and family get mad at each other, take revenge or get careless,” Sileo says. “I’ve seen a shared Amazon Prime account used to buy thousands of dollars of product for a scorned spouse on the other spouse’s credit card.” 

It’s true, but for some, sharing and then changing the password can be complicated after a bad breakup or divorce. How do you change a password without reigniting the drama? “I’m on my friend’s Netflix, and she’s on our Amazon Prime. We’ve grown apart and don’t talk, but after six years, I still haven’t done it,” another streaming user and procurement manager Ashley Cline says.

Credit: Kath Nash

Is Password Sharing Illegal?

A 2019 Survey Monkey poll found that more than a third of those polled would cancel their streaming service if those services were to start policing their password sharing. But for the most part… they don’t. (At least not yet—although the technology is certainly there.) Netflix’s co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings even conceded to streaming sharers during Netflix’s third-quarter earnings webcast in 2016: “Password sharing is something you have to learn to live with.”

Netflix hiked the price of its plans earlier this year; some speculated it was a move to keep up with increased password sharing. In its terms and conditions, the company says that it limits sharing to those within the household and you’re responsible if something happens if you share it outside of that. 

“The weakness (and vulnerability) comes when one of your friends or family doesn’t take as much care with the password as you do,” Sileo says about the risk of sharing outside your household. 

HBO has similar terms as Netflix for its streaming platform, but then-CEO Richard Plepler said he saw password sharing as a “terrific marketing vehicle” in 2014. Disney+ on the other hand, launching November 12, comes into the space with a plan to stop password sharing. According to reports, the streaming service is teaming up with cable company Charter Communications to prevent multiple users sign into one account and “work together on piracy mitigation.”

While streaming services such as Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Amazon, and yes, even the soon-to-be-released Disney+ know on some level that their users are sharing their passwords, is it actually legal to do so?

In 2011, the state of Tennessee passed a law that makes it illegal for users to share passwords to their streaming accounts, added to an existing law about stealing cable. The law mainly targets hackers selling passwords, not individual users. Password sharing can be considered a violation under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but so far, streaming services haven’t gone after the violators. 

How to Protect Yourself When Password Sharing

Sileo believes that there’s “always a risk with sharing, just like loaning your car to a friend.”

“The risks you face when you share a password is that anyone with that password can pretend to be you, and you have no real recourse if they max out your credit card, buy illegal products or use the account to facilitate illegal acts,” he says. 

Be honest with your family and friends about protecting your account—make sure no one shares it beyond your circle and to ask before they do. Set up a password manager for all of your accounts and use strong, unique passwords for each account.

Is it Wrong to Share Streaming Passwords?

In the end, the answer is: it’s complicated. 

Beyond the tricky legal element, you have to think about how your streaming dollars support the content creators behind your most binge-able shows. “As an artist, I see sharing and borrowing passwords as pirating,” dancer and artist Empress Kitty Love shared about her password practices. 

Love pays for all of her streaming services. While she hasn’t had any art stolen, she has seen her musician friends fall prey to free streaming practices and struggle to make money through their music. “I don’t want to see that happen to movies and television. I feel it’s only fair for me to support the industry that brings me so much pleasure,” she says.