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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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House panel approves electronic privacy bills

Kelly Kearsley Associated Press

OLYMPIA – People fed up with e-mail scams, devious computer “spyware” and even unwanted calls on their cell phones may soon have a reason to thank the Legislature.

The House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee approved a package of bills Thursday aimed at protecting consumers’ privacy online and on their cell phones.

“We’re a national leader in Internet-related businesses,” said the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Morris. “The only way to keep that growth factor happening is to make sure this is a safe place to do business.”

Two of the bills focus on crooked Internet activity.

One would prohibit “phishing,” or sending fake e-mails or links to fraudulent Web sites. The e-mails and Web sites attempt to solicit financial or personally identifiable information, such as Social Security or bank account numbers.

The Anti-Phishing Work Group estimates that 75 million to 150 million phishing e-mails are sent daily, though most are caught by spam filters and other technology. The work group is a nonprofit organization dedicated to stopping Internet fraud.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, said he gets a dozen of these e-mails each day.

Right now, no crime is committed until the information is used to falsely charge an account. Under Nixon’s bill, consumers and businesses would be able to sue the senders and seek damages for each violation.

Morris, D-Anacortes, sponsored the second bill.

It prohibits the use of “spyware.” Such software is designed to monitor, collect and send personal information without the computer user’s permission.

Spyware can lead to a range of problems from computer viruses to identity theft. As part of the bill, people engaging in spyware activity could face civil penalties and the state’s attorney general could take legal action to prevent the activity.

The attorney general’s office is also bolstering its efforts to fight cyber crime.

Attorney General Rob McKenna has asked for increased funding for the consumer protection division, said attorney general’s office spokesman Greg Lane. Part of that funding would create a high tech unit focused on investigating computer crimes.

Cell phone users may also see some new protections.

The technology committee approved a third bill requiring wireless phone companies to get written permission before publishing a person’s cell phone number in a directory.

The bill is a response to industry plans to create such a directory.

Robert Pregulman, executive director of the Washington Public Interest Research Group, said the cell phone industry has a long track record of poor customer service.

Rep. Dawn Morrell, the bill’s sponsor, said her constituents feel the same way. Morrell, D-Puyallup, said most people don’t want their cell phone numbers made public – and could unknowingly agree to it.

“We shouldn’t be held hostage to tiny things on the bottom of contracts,” she said. “We should be making the choice on it.”

California passed similar legislation last year, and other states are considering it. But most cell phone companies say the laws aren’t needed.

Dave Mellin, Sprint’s regional spokesman, said the patchwork of rules aimed at the wireless industry stifles innovation and increases the cost of doing business.

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