by Luke Reiter
Luke Reiter, a former assistant district attorney in Queens, is with ZDTV's CyberCrime (www.zdtv.com) in California.
IMAGINE DISCOVERING that someone had posted an electronic message under your name in a newsgroup devoted to sadomasochistic fantasies. What if the message included your home address and urged readers to stop by for a chat? Or, imagine that your boss received a fake e-mail in your name, calling him a "moron"? It can - and does - happen. Fortunately, New York - along with Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, Oklahoma and Wyoming - has enacted a law designed to cover computer harassment. Even with an appropriate law, however, getting police and prosectors to take this offense seriously is another matter. Unfortunately, if you live in one of the remaining 41 states, existing criminal law will afford you hardly any protection at all. In most states, the criminal laws make no mention of electronic methods of harassment, such as e-mail or newsgroups. Generally, those states only consider it a crime if you make phone calls designed to annoy, threaten or alarm another person. Such outmoded laws have left state legislatures scrambling to catch up with technology and millions of Americans vulnerable to attack, with no legal remedy. One Maryland author learned that lesson the hard way. Last year, she found herself on the receiving end of a vicious high-tech harassment campaign. But when she went to the local authorities, she was told that such conduct was not a crime under existing law. If her attackers had used the phone, then police could do something. New legislation passed this week in Maryland makes electronic harassment a crime. Similar legislation is pending in California. According to Jerry Coleman, the legislative aide for the San Francisco district attorney, current laws would have to be "twisted into the current cybersituation" to include e-mail harassment. To protect the public, he said, two new bills are pending. At this point, New Yorkers are ahead of the game. The penal law for aggravated harassment in the second degree includes messages that are "initiated by mechanical or electronic means." The larger issue for New Yorkers, then, is to convince local authorities that such cases are worthy of their time and resources. Often, police simply don't have the time - or the inclination - to focus on electronic harassment cases. As a practical problem, many cases of e-mail harassment involve computer users in different states. It may prove difficult to convince an officer - that forged e-mails merit an investigation across state lines. Given the limited resources available, the police simply can't launch costly interstate investigations for the misdemeanor crime of aggravated harassment. Even if the police were to spend the time and money, New York prosecutors would then have to file misdemeanor charges against out-of-state defendants. And the chances of a prosecutor extraditing a person for aggravated computer harassment are slim indeed, given the serious nature of other crimes needing attention. Some New York Police Department officers may be inclined to trivialize the seriousness of computer harassment. One detective I spoke to quipped that targets of such harassment brought it on themselves and should just "live with it." But a growing number of law enforcement officials disagree. The New York Police Department has created a unit devoted to investigating computer crime. Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown has said that prosecutors are ready and willing to take these complaints seriously. As the popularity of e-mail increases, New York authorities' commitment to electronic harassment laws will undoubtedly be tested. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, state legislatures should include e-mail messages in their harassment laws and close this electronic loophole. Then the law could be applied more evenly and advantageously. Thanks to the Internet, harassment is far more than just annoying phone calls; it can threaten your personal safety and professional standing. Nonetheless, most states still do not have criminal laws designed to protect people from this new form of crime. It's time they woke up and cracked down.
Copyright 1998, Newsday Inc.
Make Laws Tougher on Cyber-Crime., 04-22-1998, pp A41.