Password Sharing Is Now a Crime
In a truly terrible ruling, the US 9th Circuit Court ruled that using someone else’s password with their permission but without the permission of the site owner is a federal crime.
The argument McKeown made is that the employee who shared the password with Nosal “had no authority from Korn/Ferry to provide her password to former employees.”
At issue is language in the CFAA that makes it illegal to access a computer system “without authorization.” McKeown said that “without authorization” is “an unambiguous, non-technical term that, given its plain and ordinary meaning, means accessing a protected computer without permission.” The question that legal scholars, groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and dissenting judge Stephen Reinhardt ask is an important one: Authorization from who?
Reinhardt argues that Nosal’s use of the database was unauthorized by the firm, but was authorized by the former employee who shared it with him. For you and me, this case means that unless Netflix specifically authorizes you to share your password with your friend, you’re breaking federal law.
While the majority opinion said that the facts of this case “bear little resemblance” to the kind of password sharing that people often do, Judge Reinhardt’s dissent notes that it fails to provide an explanation of why that is. Using an analogy in which a woman uses her husband’s user credentials to access his bank account to pay bills, Judge Reinhardt noted: “So long as the wife knows that the bank does not give her permission to access its servers in any manner, she is in the same position as Nosal and his associates.” As a result, although the majority says otherwise, the court turned anyone who has ever used someone else’s password without the approval of the computer owner into a potential felon.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been a disaster for many reasons, this being one of them. There will be an appeal of this ruling.