CyLab study: Romantic couples are sharing online accounts in security-compromising ways

Daniel Tkacik

Sep 7, 2018

2 people sitting, on electronic devices

Source: Pixabay

Anecdotally, there appears to be a growing trend of couples sharing online accounts. Makes sense: why pay for two Netflix accounts if you're always watching your favorite movies and shows with your partner on one account? No real data existed on this supposed trend, until recently.

"Romantic relationships are quite unique in the sense that they involve emotions and they are more intimate," says CyLab researcher Cheul Young Park, a research associate in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII). "Since most online accounts aren't designed to be shared, couples may be engaging in unsafe security behaviors."

Park's study, titled "Share and Share Alike? An Exploration of Secure Behaviors in Romantic Relationships," was presented at last month's USENIX Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security conference in Baltimore.

The team surveyed 195 participants about their relationship status and account-sharing behavior across a multitude of popular websites and apps, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others. The survey revealed users engaging in unsafe security practices.

"Some people responded that they share accounts through sending text messages to each other, sending emails to each other, or storing every password on an Excel document, which is unprotected," Park says.


Source: Carnegie Mellon University CyLab

The researchers identified four main motivations fueling these practices: convenience, trust, relationship maintenance, and household maintenance. Those who shared accounts for relationship maintenance did so to maintain or improve their relationship well-being, for example, sharing a sports TV account if they both enjoy watching and discussing sports. Couples who shared accounts for household maintenance usually did so for cost-savings. 

"We both use the Amazon account and share the Prime account to keep costs down," one survey respondent said.

Not surprisingly, if couples shared accounts, 48 percent said they were most likely to share entertainment accounts like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. Thirty-nine percent of account-sharing couples shared finance accounts such as online banking, utilities accounts, or insurance accounts.

"Unmarried couples were sharing more entertainment accounts, but when people married, they started sharing finance accounts or other accounts they considered more private to themselves," says Park. 

Since most online accounts aren't designed to be shared, couples may be engaging in unsafe security behaviors.

Cheul Young Park, Researcher, CyLab, Carnegie Mellon University

Park says that these findings serve as concrete evidence that couples are indeed sharing online accounts in various ways, and they're doing so in unsafe ways at times. This led the team to make recommendations to increase couples' safety online.

"We recommend that companies make something similar to Netflix and Hulu that allow users to create different profiles within their account, so that they can manage their information more efficiently and safely," Park says.

Other authors on the study included HCII Ph.D. students Cori Faklaris, Siyan Zhao, and Alex Sciuto, and HCII professors Laura Dabbish and Jason Hong.