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Leslie bills would curb Internet abuse

Patrick McCartney

A few years ago, state Sen. Tim Leslie received a death threat by e-mail by someone who bragged he would never be found.

The letter-writer lived in Texas, but had gone to great lengths to disguise the source of the threatening letter.

While police finally tracked the disgruntled writer down, Leslie has now prepared a legislative package that would make such abuses a crime.

Leslie, R-Tahoe City, introduced six bills that attempt to protect the privacy of Internet users, stiffen penalties for the theft of one’s identity and require the disclosure of Internet information used by employers, companies and state agencies.

Senate Bill 1796 defines a wide range of electronic activities as harassment or “cyberstalking.”

“A series of nasty things can be done through cyberstalking,” Leslie said during an interview this week.

If passed, the law would prohibit the flooding of someone’s e-mailbox with thousands of messages, threatening someone by e-mail, signing up another person on message boards or e-mail bulletins that are objectionable.

“The anonymous nature of the Internet makes such harassment very enticing to some people,” Leslie said. “We need to put some tools in place to be used as our knowledge and capability on the Internet expands.”

Other bills in the package would require employers to notify applicants of the content of background searches conducted by Internet data bases, restrict the disclosure of medical records through the Internet, and require the disclosure of information obtained by companies through Internet questionnaires of children.

“We’re getting into a new era,” Leslie said. “We need to be ahead of the curve when it comes to preserving our privacy. We’re trying to stay in tune with the scientific advances.”

One activity regulated by the legislation would be the practice of state agencies using programs called “cookies,” that access the computer of people who contact the agency by e-mail. With a cookie program, computer users can access someone else’s computer, monitor their e-mail and browse their hard drive.

Leslie’s Senate Bill 1386 would require state agencies using cookies to disclose when they are in use.

Computer professionals say the rise of the Internet and information technology has created the opportunity for abuses. Russ Hatfield of Black Oak Computers in South Lake Tahoe said few computer owners are aware of the potential threat in its use.

“With the Internet, there’s a lot of potential for abuse,” Hatfield said. “There is much more openness in the Internet. When you access the Internet, other people can access you. Some consider it the price you pay for the Information Age.”

Hatfield said software exists that can block hostile invasions of a computer, and then identify the perpetrator. The software costs about $150, but is not widely used. And if people receive harassing e-mail, it’s not difficult to change one’s e-mail and send out a mass-mailing to friends notifying them of the change.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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