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U.S. House votes to outlaw computer spyware

Reuters | May 24, 2005

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON - 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, 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 computer.

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 there'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.

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