Tech forum questions whether pretexting ban will work

Technology industry experts on Tuesday questioned whether new U.S. legislation will be effective at stopping pretexting

Obtaining private records under false pretences is bad, but some in the technology industry say it happens all the time and wonder whether new federal legislation will curb "pretexting."

Pretexting came up in a discussion about tech industry legislation at the Tech Policy Forum Tuesday in San Jose, California. State charges are pending in San Jose against people charged in the pretexting scandal at Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Four people, including ousted HP Chairman Patricia Dunn, were charged in October 2006 for their part in a scheme to identify leaks to media by HP directors by obtaining their phone records and those of some reporters. Agents working on behalf of HP allegedly tricked phone companies into divulging people's phone records by pretending to be them.

In the wake of the HP pretexting scandal, which prompted a House subcommittee to call HP executives and others to testify, Congress passed federal legislation signed by President George Bush in January outlawing pretexting. But a new bill has been introduced in the current session of Congress to direct the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to enforce the ban on pretexting.

The FTC already enforces a ban on pretexting but it is narrowly defined, said Mozelle Thompson, a consultant who once served as an FTC commissioner.

"It only covers pretexting for the purpose of identity theft and you have to show a direct harm to a consumer" because of it, Thompson said at the summit.

Although some speakers at the summit criticized phone companies for not protecting call records well enough, another wondered how pretexting could be stopped.

"This has been happening for years," said Shari Steele, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The latest bill, co-authored by Representatives Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, and Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, is a complement to the earlier pretexting ban. The FTC should enforce the pretexting ban because it has more expertise and interest in prosecuting identity theft cases than local prosecutors, a spokeswoman for Inslee said. The two introduced their bill in 2006, but it never came up for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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