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It should be a crime to install spyware on phones, thunders Plaid Cymru MP

But anti-harassment plans will worry photogs and parodies

By Gareth Corfield, 10 May 2016

Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts has tabled a series of amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill which, among other things, could make it illegal to install spyware on someone's phone.

Roberts, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd* in Wales, is concerned about how new tech and platforms can be misused.

Speaking to The Register, she said: “Changes in technology and what people can do with technology is always moving ahead of legislation. We're playing catch-up with the technology, particularly how it is being used for harassment.”

Of most interest to tech-savvy folk is Roberts' proposals to criminalise the use of spyware or “digital devices” to keep tabs on third parties. Installing “spyware, a webcam or any other device or software on another person's property or digital device without the user's agreement or without legitimate reason” would become an offence punishable with a year in prison.

Moreover, she also wants anyone buying “spyware” in the UK “to state their intended use of such equipment” at the point of purchase.

Another of Roberts' anti-harassment amendments would, if passed, make it illegal to “repeatedly order goods and services for another person if the purpose of such actions is to cause distress, anxiety or to disrupt that person's daily life”.

“What already has legislation is revenge porn,” she told The Register, referring to the criminal offence introduced last year which makes it illegal to post explicit images of someone online without their consent.

“Many young people reporting this are under 18,” said the Welsh MP. “I won't speculate as to why but under-18s are particularly vulnerable to this. It's particularly concerning if it happens to young people.”

Photographers may also object to Roberts' plan to outlaw the taking of “multiple [two or more] images of an individual unless it is in the public interest to do so” – though the offence would only apply where there was no consent and “where the intent was not legitimate nor lawful”.

As well as making photographers' lives more difficult, another offence Roberts wants to create would apply to social media accounts created “to attempt to defraud, groom, impersonate or seriously damage the reputation of any other person” – and yet another proposal of hers would criminalise people who wipe their phones while they are being examined during “any lawful investigation”.

When questioned as to why some of her detailed proposals effectively duplicate existing laws, Roberts said: “There are differences in interpretation from [police] force to force,” adding that she hoped her plans would draw police attention to these offences and encourage stronger enforcement.

“Yes, there is legislation in place but there is a reluctance to encourage to police to get involved,” she said. The chief constable of Essex Police, speaking to the Guardian in March, said that existing anti-harassment laws are insufficient to tackle an “unimagined scale of online abuse”.

Does all this go too far in restricting online freedoms?

Roberts was calm when El Reg asked whether all this infringes people's online freedoms.

“We must define harassment very carefully,” she said. “This must not become a licence to restrain free speech but people do use social media as a means to harass. As criminal behaviour moves into digital media we have to transfer boundaries and our definitions into online behaviour.”

The Policing and Crime Bill is currently at its report stage in the House of Commons. Roberts' amendments were still listed for potential inclusion in the 4th May list of amendments, though no timetable has yet been set for the conclusion of the report stage or the bill's proceeding to its third and final reading in the Commons.

Roberts' detailed amendments are available on the Parliament website, here (at the bottom). They continue here.

The MP previously introduced these amendments to Parliament as the Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services Bill back in March, as The Register reported. That bill died quietly before its second reading. ®

Walesnote

* The Dwyfor Meirionnydd constituency stretches across west and north west Wales, running from just north of Aberystwyth to Bardsey Island, following the northern half of Cardigan Bay.

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing