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House passes bill imposing prison time over 'spyware'

WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday passed the second bill in three days that would outlaw "spyware," irritating software that quietly monitors the activities of Internet users.

It would add penalties of up to five years in prison for people convicted of installing such programs without a computer user's permission.

The bill, known as the "Internet Spyware Prevention Act," passed 415-0. It would give the Justice Department $10 million to crack down on companies and others that secretly install spyware and those who attempt to trick victims into disclosing personal details and financial information in e-mail scams popularly known as "phishing."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said such problems were growing and serious. Offenders under his bill would be sentenced for up to five years for secretly installing spyware to break into someone's computer and commiting another federal crime.

Anyone caught installing spyware to change a computer's security settings or steal a victim's personal information — such as an e-mail address, telephone number or bank account number — could be sentenced up to two years in prison.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said spyware was "quickly becoming one of the biggest threats to consumers on the Internet." She cited estimates that up to 90 percent of computers contain some forms of spyware. Lofgren said her daughter was recently victimized by electronic thieves in a phishing scam, persuading her in a forged e-mail to disclose personal information.

"Her thumb hit the send button and she thought, 'Oh, my goodness, what have I done!' We had to call and cancel all the credit cards and the like," Lofgren said. "This is something that preys upon people."

The House on Tuesday voted 399-1 to pass the "Spy Act," sponsored by Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., which would add hefty civil penalties over the use of spyware.

Lawmakers were widely expected to combine both proposals for a final vote by year's end.

The House bill passed Wednesday is H.R. 4661. The related bill approved Tuesday is H.R. 2929.