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Netflix wants to stop you from using your ex’s account, but it doesn’t know how to

By Harriet Piercy

Mar 30, 2021

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The world’s most popular video streaming service gained 37 million new subscribers due to the global pandemic-induced lockdowns, which lead to the company seeing almost $2.8 billion in profit, according to Netflix’s latest earning report. That’s a lot of dough, and the company isn’t ready to thank who brought it either, as it is now clamping down on password sharing. Here’s what you need to know.

Earlier on in March 2021, some users received the message “If you don’t live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching.” To which those users were asked to verify their account through two-factor authentication via a code being sent to the ‘official’ account holder’s phone or email. Basically, if you were still logged on to and using your ex’s Netflix account, your sweet free streaming may have come to an abrupt halt. That being said, it may not all be that bad, because the company has all of us to lose in the long term if it strictly regulates its users. We’ve had enough of being told no over the past year, wouldn’t you say?

The research firm Magid stated that a third of subscribers in the US alone have admitted to sharing their passwords, which could be costing the streaming service as much as $25 billion a year, which makes their mere $2.8 billion profit look a little small… sorry Netflix.

The company does however promote itself as a consumer friendly brand, and although the terms of service clearly state that passwords “may not be shared with individuals beyond your household,” we still do it. The threat of a password crunch down was contradictory to what Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, said at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) back in 2016: that consumers sharing Netflix account information was “a positive thing.” Later, according to Quartz, he stated that it was something Netflix just had to “learn to live with.”

Obviously, like any subscription service, Netflix wants users to pay for the service that they use, and that is only fair. Even if people are ‘borrowing’ passwords, and effectively not paying, it does still combat the issue of illegal streaming or downloading movies from Torrent websites. Although these sites are very much being used by a lot of people, imagine how many more would use them if the sharing of Netflix passwords were truly clamped down on.

As lockdowns are beginning to lift all over the world, in some places quicker than others, people are likely going to be spending more of their time outdoors and not in front of their televisions, which doesn’t favour Netflix’s subscriber count. It may be the reason that Netflix created the test of threatening two-factor authentication in the first place, because ‘quietly’ discouraging users from sharing their passwords could be a way to, as Quartz puts it, “squeeze some extra revenue out of existing freeloaders without doing much damage to the brand.”

Most of the time, users who freely use their friend or family’s accounts will become paying customers themselves at some point. We see this as kids leave home and receive a salary of their own—having a Netflix account that is separate from their parents is almost a right of passage into independence. Also, if you share passwords with your current flatmates, and then move flat, you’ll find that they might start up a new account after you leave because they have become accustomed to having access to endless things to watch. A word of caution though, let’s discuss safety.

Password sharing and safety

Jack Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at ESET spoke to TechRadar on the matter of password sharing and safety (that go beyond the obvious safety perceptions). He commented that “If I were to ask people if they share their email account password with anyone else, the vast majority would probably say ‘absolutely no chance!’… but when it comes to media services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Spotify, such password sharing is actually quite common. It may sound innocent, but when people are using the same password for their media service that they use for other accounts, it starts to become dangerous, and the risk of account compromises increases.”

Moore advises what we all know but might not necessarily put into practice: “regularly change your passwords in order to flush out anyone who has gained access over the last year who shouldn’t have. Creating complex passwords, combined with a password manager, will reduce your risk of compromise.” Let’s not forget that the web of gossip goes far beyond trusty circles of friends, with passwords or otherwise, because online, if your best friend who mooches your Netflix account gets hacked, it simply means the hacker has your password too.

Silver linings

There is no talk of a guarantee that Netflix will implement this two factor authentication hurdle world wide, or anywhere, but as Magid wrote, “a system that introduces two-factor lets you continue sharing, as long as you don’t mind passing along the occasional code. It’s a little inconvenience for a lot more peace of mind.”