Make Laws Tougher on Cyber-Crime

by Luke Reiter
Luke Reiter, a former assistant district attorney in Queens, is with ZDTV's CyberCrime ( 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.