online security and the law

A federal court ruling in a case under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could make sharing passwords a federal offense. The CFAA legislation is primarily focused on hacking; however, one judge warns that the ruling jeopardizes password-sharing for everyone.

The new federal court ruling, potentially, could make sharing passwords for subscription services a federal crime punishable by prison time. That’s a scary thought. Doesn’t everyone share their passwords with family members?

The CFAA law has been described by some as the worst law in technology. The ruling was issued by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in relation to a trade secret case.

Some companies, such as Netflix, have said that password-sharing is a positive thing. They, in fact, encourage account-sharing. This latest ruling seems to be an unintended consequence of a bad law.

Under the ruling, anyone sharing a password without prior authorization could be violating the CFAA law. However, there is no agreement as to what “proper authorization” is. Without that legal specification, it is unlikely that you would be prosecuted for sharing your information.

The nexus of this potential problem begins with the case of a man who used a co-worker’s password to steal trade secrets from his former employer. He was eventually found guilty, fined, and spent time in prison.

The dissenting Justice, Stephen Reinhardt, argued that the case was about passwords and not hacking. Writing in his dissent, Reinhardt says, “In my view, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act does not make the millions of people who engage in this ubiquitous, useful, and generally harmless conduct into unwitting federal criminals.”

The controversial law has also been used to prosecute violation of Terms of Service agreements. While it may not seem likely, it does look as if there is ambiguity in the translation of the use of this law, and that is never a good thing.

What do you think? Should password sharing be a criminal offense?

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