In the ongoing battle against content piracy, streaming video account sharing adds another dimension to content protection efforts. In this article, we discuss the main types of credential sharing and the associated risks.

Content Protection and the Hidden Extended Network of Streaming Video

Most of us spend a considerable amount of time watching TV and streaming video. With “TV Everywhere”, we don’t just watch from the set in our living rooms but on laptops, tablets, and mobile devices, and in any room in our homes, our modes of transport, and public spaces.

As much as service providers seek to fulfil our demand to watch what we want, when we want, and how we want, we don’t always want to pay. “Free-for-view” is enticing and often too easy. If we didn’t have access to desired content on our current services, according to our recent survey[i] one in five (18%) would choose to gain access through free online streams (piracy).

Content Piracy

Stopping content piracy has long been fought for by content owners and service providers. Content owners, video service providers, regulators, and law enforcement all work to dissuade and stop piracy, and although they find success, the fight is never-ending.

|Read: 25 Years of Innovation: Content Security|

The growth of over-the-top (OTT) video streaming makes content protection more challenging and complex. The traditional battleground for the fight between operators and pirates was the set top box, and the smartcards allowing access to premium content. This battleground is now being bypassed by the ease with which content can be shared on the internet.

Companies use a wide range of technology and detection techniques, such as watermarking and geo-blocking, to track and stop unwanted and illegal access to valuable content in this ongoing piracy game of “cat-and-mouse”.

|Read: Controlling Access in a Borderless (Internet) World|

Credential Sharing

Adding to the fight between paid and pirate viewing is shared viewing via shared user IDs and passwords (i.e. credentials) to subscriptions for streaming video services.

Up until recently, credential sharing was an overlooked grey area in content protection, mainly for marketing reasons – as a survey respondent commented, sharing is okay “so someone can try before they buy”. Allowing sharing was a strategic route for OTT streaming video services to win future subscribers, and indeed it has been successful.

As the industry is maturing with more OTT competition and slowing subscriber growth rates, credential sharing is no longer a safe strategy.

For example, it was reported in November 2018 that despite Netflix having 147.5 million US consumers using its platform in 2018, the company only reported 58.4 million subscribers in the third quarter[ii]. The huge difference in number is thought to be because many Netflix users don’t own a subscription and instead use a friend or family member’s account.

In our survey, 27% of respondents admit to using account credentials from someone outside their household to access video services and 28% admit to letting someone outside their household use their account credentials to access their video subscriptions.

“It’s okay to share, but not with anyone who doesn’t live with you. That’s like stealing.”

Previous tolerance may actually have led to damaging relaxed consumer attitudes.

As one respondent commented, it’s okay to share streaming accounts because they’re “not blocked from it”, and another noted that the content is “streamed, not downloaded and kept”.

Key Findings from 'How Consumers Access Streaming Video' Survey

Key Findings from 'How Consumers Access Streaming Video' survey

Source: How Consumers Access Streaming Video: The Risks of Credential Sharing

The Risk of the Extended Network 

Not all credential sharing is considered unacceptable. For example, 36% of respondents in our survey only share account credentials with someone in their household.

Consumers and streaming service providers generally agree that it makes sense for people who live together to share services. Service providers’ terms of service typically allow members of the same household to use and share a single account.

The concern is primarily with sharing activity beyond the household. As one survey respondent commented, “It’s okay to share, but not with anyone who doesn’t live with you. That’s like stealing.”

Often, sharing extends to non-household relatives, close friends and even to people that subscribers don’t know very well, and sometimes without the account holder’s knowledge or permission.

We define credential sharing as sharing account access details with someone outside of the household for which the subscription was purchased.

In our survey, two out of three (68%) people who use shared credentials admit to obtaining account credentials from a close friend or non-household family member.

Cartesian sees three main types of sharing outside the household: 

1. Family & Friends

This is sharing account details with family, partners, close friends, and includes students (e.g. children living away from the main household).

Typically, sharing is for a specific piece of content, but access is often maintained beyond the original intention.

2. Extended Network

Extended network sharing is often the result of third-degree sharing: you share with one person (e.g. family or close friend) who shares with another. It also refers to sharing with colleagues and acquaintances.

The traditional battleground for the fight between operators and pirates was the set top box, and the smartcards allowing access to premium content. This battleground is now being bypassed by the ease with which content can be shared on the internet.

Third-degree sharing can result in many users – some without a link to the account holder – having account access. Also, the account holder may not have consented or is even aware that someone is using their account.

3. Buying/Selling Credentials

Account subscription details are being purchased and sold through various websites and other means. Although this activity is not common and more often found where a service provider’s platform restrictions are fairly relaxed (e.g. no device limitation), it can have a significantly disproportionate impact on usage.

The Extended Network: Three main types of credential sharing outside the household

Credential sharing is sharing account access details with someone outside of the household for which the subscription was purchased 

 

7300-CredShare-Three Types

Source: How Consumers Access Streaming Video: The Risks of Credential Sharing

Any of these types of sharing activity can also be the result of credential theft (sharing without the permission of the subscription account holder) whether done intentionally or not.

In our survey, although only 8% of sharers say they share with acquaintances, half of them (48%) admitted to allowing a partner they don’t live with to use their account subscriptions. In addition, 43% say they would share with a non-household family member and 48% with close friends, if asked.

Although company policies have tightened up on account sharing, as our survey suggests, a significant number of viewers borrow or allow other people to access their subscription.

How serious credential sharing is as an issue for an organization will vary and there are business risks to consider. We look at these in our next article. <> 

> Download the full report: How Consumers Access Streaming Video: The Risks of Credential Sharing

Referencing survey results and drawing from our work in analytics and content security, our survey report:

  • Reveals consumer viewing habits and attitudes towards video services access;
  • Explains credential sharing in the context of piracy and content protection;
  • Defines unwanted credential sharing and its three main types;
  • Examines the risk to content owners and service providers, and;
  • Outlines an approach to track, stop, and prevent unwanted sharing activity, while minimizing negative impact on customer experience

 

Do you know how large the extended network is of your subscriber base? Read this case study to see how we helped a communications services provider understand the extent and impact of unauthorized account sharing. Learn about our solution here or get in touch to see how we can help. 


Notes:

[i] Cartesian conducted an online survey in November 2018 with 1,183 American consumers.

[ii] “Netflix to surpass 147 million viewers in US by end of year”, The Wrap, November 2018