TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Congress Votes to Outlaw Computer Spyware

Congress Votes to Outlaw Computer Spyware

Lisa Minter (
Tue, 24 May 2005 02:23:53 -0500

By Andy Sullivan

The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday voted to establish new
penalties for purveyors of Internet "spyware" that disables users'
computers and secretly monitors their activities.

By overwhelming majorities, the House passed two bills that stiffen
jail sentences and establish multimillion-dollar fines for those who
use secret surveillance programs to steal credit-card numbers, sell
software or commit other crimes.

Spyware has emerged as a major headache for computer users over the
last several years.

It can sap computing power, crash machines and bury users under a
blizzard of unwanted ads. Scam artists use spyware to capture
passwords, account numbers and other sensitive data.

Spyware can end up on users' computers through a virus or when they
download games or other free programs off the Internet.

"Consumers have a right to know and have a right to decide who has
access to their highly personal information that spyware can collect,"
said California Republican Rep. Mary Bono (news, bio, voting record),
who sponsored one of the bills.

The bills prohibit a number of practices often associated with
spyware, such as reprograming the start page on a user's Web browser,
logging keystrokes to capture passwords and other sensitive data, or
launching pop-up ads that can't be closed without shutting down the

The practice known as "phishing" -- in which scam artists pose as
banks or other businesses in an attempt to trick consumers into
divulging account information -- would also be outlawed.

The House voted 395 to 1 to impose jail sentences of up to 2 years.
Violators could face fines up to $3 million per incident. Those who
use spyware to commit other crimes, such as identity theft, could have
an additional 5 years tacked on to their sentences.

Both bills passed the House last year but the Senate adjourned before
taking action. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate
this year.

Most spyware practices are already illegal under deceptive-business
laws but federal and state law enforcers have only sued two spyware
purveyors so far, one expert said.

"We know that there are literally hundreds of these cases out
there. Unless nthere's a push for enforcement, passing a new law is
really only going to help after the fact," said Ari Schwartz,
associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a
consumer-advocacy group.

The bill gives the Justice Department an additional $10 million per
year through 2009 to fight spyware.

Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.

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