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FTC official: Let's imprison spyware distributors

WASHINGTON--Steep fines are nice, but one of the best weapons against spyware purveyors is locking them up, a federal regulator told senators on Tuesday.

At a morning Senate Commerce Committee hearing here, Federal Trade Commissioner William Kovacic said most wrongdoers in the spyware arena "can only be described as vicious organized criminals."

"Many of most serious wrongdoers we observed in this area, I believe, are only going to be deterred if their freedom is withdrawn," so it's important for the FTC to collaborate on its cases with criminal law enforcement authorities, Kovacic said.

Kovacic's remarks came in response to a question from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who was presiding over Tuesday morning's hearing, about whether the FTC is sufficiently equipped to combat the scourge of software planted surreptitiously on a user's computer.

"It's a real source of frustration for my constituents, my family, my office...basically anyone who has a computer," Pryor said.

Congress has been trying for years to pass legislation aimed at curbing spyware and adware, but most of that activity so far has occurred in the House of Representatives, as opposed to the Senate.

FTC Commissioner Jon Leibowitz repeated his agency's call for Congress to elevate what it perceives as limited fining powers--not just in spyware cases, but in other situations within the FTC's enforcement range, such as when a person is caught using false pretenses, or pretexting, to obtain telephone records.

The purpose of Tuesday's hearing--which lasted about 90 minutes and featured appearances from only four senators on the 22-member committee--was to allow the FTC commissioners to update the Senate on their progress and to request $240 million for next year's budget--an increase of $17 million from last year. The event marked the first appearance by all five FTC commissioners before the panel since an identity theft hearing in June 2005.