Netflix’s new user profiles will mean freeloaders get even better service

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Netflix announced at E3 on Wednesday that the new user profiles that we’ve reported were in the works will make their debut this summer. The idea behind the new profiles is to cater to families whose members have disparate film tastes and thus each want their own movie recommendations — rather than pooled recommendations and histories that jumble the interface and make it difficult to find relevant content.

But there may be an unintended consequence of the new profiles: even better service for people who are illegally sharing passwords.

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Of course, anyone with a busy household on the same streaming account would know that over time, finding a good movie or picking up where you left off on a TV show can be a major hassle.

By neatly organizing your family members into separate user profiles, there’s less mixing of tastes and histories — the media equivalent of keeping your Play Doh colors separate to prevent it from becoming a dried-out mass of marbled colors. You won’t have “Gut-Wrenching Horror Film” recommendations next to “Early Learning Show” titles anymore, and that small change will make a big difference in the general convenience of finding, streaming and enjoying media.

The same thing will happen when a person with a Netflix account lets half-a-dozen friends skim off for free — something plenty of 20-somethings do regularly. With the new mulitple profiles, it’ll be even easier for freeloaders to piggyback on someone else’s account. Users will be able to dole out passwords to their friends, set up user accounts, and then live happily on one subscription with separate histories and recommendations. It’s a new level of convenience for practically no money. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said that he doesn’t think password sharing is that big a problem.

But maybe, just maybe, this user profile feature is the perfectly laid trap — the carrot positioned pristinely in the middle of an iron-jawed clamp called unauthorized access. Depending on what kind of data Netflix tracks between accounts, even a little thing like logging IP addresses could go a long way toward programming a bot that shuts down accounts with too many foreign connections.

Technically, illegal users could spend a year in jail for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which can lay the hammer down on password distribution for “exceeding authorized access.” Of course, it’s highly doubtful that Netflix or any other online media distribution company would take the time to prosecute such a thing. A terse account shutdown would be enough to dissuade users from skimming.

Netflix’s decision is a smart one, whether it’s a true convenience or the best piece of technological flypaper to catch rampant password distributors.

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