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On solving for the vast gray area that is credential sharing

The subject of credential sharing recently appeared in a Reuters article , which presented an analysis of the problem and attitudes toward online password sharing of over-the-top (OTT) video services. The article cited a Reuters/Ipsos poll that highlights the extent of sharing – for example, that one-fifth of young adults use OTT service passwords of others who do not live with them – begging the question of how much potential OTT revenue is being left on the table.

Here’s a key takeaway: OTT credential sharing isn’t a new concern, but may grab more attention from video providers and their investors who are perennially on the lookout for things that may disaffect revenues. Like a lack of growth in new customer signups, which some analysts are anticipating.

A particular OTT provider cited was Netflix, then gearing up to report second quarter earnings -- which ultimately surpassed expectations, at 5.2 million new customers. Wall Street estimates were for 3.23 million additions in the quarter.

Nonetheless, when new customer signups for subscription OTT services slow, the focus invariably shifts to other potential areas of revenue growth. Which brings us back to credential sharing.

This is far trickier than it sounds. Why, because consumers are passionate about their freedom -- and service and content providers are passionate about their customers.

Even the credential sharing nomenclature is a delicate subject: dare we call it piracy?

Everyone knows someone (or is someone) who shares her or his Netflix, Hulu, and other premium OTT passwords with family members. The reasoning: Why not? They’re family. They always (ok, usually) ask before purchasing anything.

But what about an account that’s suddenly and simultaneously being used in hundreds of different places, all over the globe? Or an account that typically tends to watch action/adventure and romantic comedies, which is suddenly streaming a ton of anime and horror movies, making personalized content recommendations and ads go haywire? Or one that typically tends to be used in, oh, say, Denver and Stuttgart, that’s suddenly lighting up in Oregon, Virginia, and Spain?

These are the extremes in a whole range of behaviors, observed daily, that exemplify the gray area of credential sharing.

The same Reuters article about credential sharing mentioned our own Conrad Clemson, about how we’ve developed ways for service providers to detect abnormal activity on a particular OTT video account. What he said is important: That service and content providers are “very much in the experimental phase right now.”

To expound on that a bit: Even though Cisco does indeed address media credential sharing , with a solution designed to help our customers ferret out patterns that could indicate password sharing -- it’s just not that easy, is it? Calling out a customer for illegitimate activity, amid a gray area, requires considerable finesse, thoughtfulness, and data.

Getting to desired business outcomes requires going beyond “just” viewership information. It requires machine learning, and advanced data science techniques, to get a better sense of what’s happening during a “share.”

Once the advanced analysis is done, the question ultimately becomes what to do about it. Where’s the line between acceptable (and even desired) account sharing behavior, and theft of service? It’s about establishing business policies that stop the detrimental sharing behavior, while not disillusioning consumers, and even growing revenue by making attractive service offers to sharers.

That’s essentially where things stand today, with service and content providers: Analyzing and detailing the nature of sharing. Applying advanced data science, to come up with solid profiles and characterizations. Only then can the business policies be established that make a difference.