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How lawmakers are working to broaden computer trespassing law in Virginia

Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 25, 2020

RICHMOND, Va. -- Computer trespassing is already a crime in Virginia, but state lawmakers are trying to broaden the law because of how difficult it can be for law enforcement to charge violators.

Under current law, computer trespassing amounts to unauthorized access of another person’s computer to with malicious intent.

Sen. John Bell (D-Loudoun) said the “malicious intent” portion makes the law difficult to enforce. With increasingly connected world, Bell said internet protections need to keep up with computer criminals in order to hold them accountable.

SB 378, which has now passed both the Virginia House and Senate with bipartisan support, would expand the definition of computer trespassing by adding “through intentionally deceptive means” to the current law. Under Bell’s proposal, a violation of this new standard could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.

“This is evolving. If you look at where we spend our time, on social media, our phones, computers, certainly this is an area that should be protected as well,” Bell said. “What this bill does this year that tries to address that is it sets another bar: intentionally deceive with ill intent. So, it makes it pretty clear there's another level.”

A few years ago, Bell said his neighbor approached him about the issue after someone tried to extort the man using photographs and information gleaned from social media.

“It's pretty easy for someone with ill intent to get pictures, photos, and they did this with his family and children. And then they were going to make false allegations and they were going to email it to everyone he knew to embarrass him,” Bell said.

Since current Virginia law includes only “malicious intent” in the computer trespassing statute, Bell said law enforcement and prosecutors could not press charges in his neighbor’s case.

“The hope is frankly that the bar will be set at a place where we can issue a fine and stop people from doing this. They would have a criminal record then,” Bell said.

Members of Bell’s on party did vote against the bill in the House of Delegates, although the final vote tally in that chamber 90-9. During committee hearings, lawmakers voiced concerns that making the law broader would lead to false reporting and inappropriate criminal charges.

Although SB 378 has passed both chambers, it has not been sent to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk. The Governor’s Office said Northam would carefully review the bill when it reached his desk.

They have been five computer trespassing convictions over the last five years (2014-2019), according to state officials

Katherine Morley was filling out job applications at Richmond law firms at Urban Farmhouse in Scott Addition in between job interviews Tuesday. Morley knows no matter what protection are in place her information is more vulnerable when using her personal computer in public.

“I'm attaching a resume that has all types of personal information on it,” Morley said. “Most people have probably never thought twice about sitting in a coffee shop and going through Facebook or doing a job application or answering an email, which has all kinds of private information, pictures, all that fun stuff on it.”

Morley thought broadening computer trespassing laws in Virginia would help out, although she said the best way to protect her personal information is through privacy settings and caution.

“The world is safe, but it could always be safer,” Morley said.