July 3, 2008

Data-Retrieval Law Has Computer Techs Under the Gun

AUSTIN -- Houston computer repair technician David Norelid is worried that a new state law is going to turn him from Magnum PC to Magnum P.I.

Norelid and computer technicians from Austin and Dallas have sued over a law that requires a private detective's license for anyone who retrieves data from a computer, analyzes it and makes a report to a customer. Failure to do so could result in a criminal penalty.

"It would have a chilling effect on small mom-and-pop computer repair shops like me," Norelid said. "I would probably have to shut down."

A publicity stunt? The author of the law -- state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland -- said the computer technicians are misinterpreting the law. And he said the lawsuit was a publicity stunt by a new legal advocacy group in Austin.

Driver said his law, sought by the private security industry, will have no impact on people who do nothing but computer hardware repair.

The only technicians it will impact, Driver said, are those who retrieve data, analyze it and create a report for a third party that could be used in a civil or criminal case. Driver said that kind of data retrieval goes "deep into people's personal lives."

Matt Miller, an attorney with the Institute for Justice handling the lawsuit, said he believes the law is so vaguely worded that it could be enforced broadly by the Private Security Board.

Stepping across the line The board has interpreted the law as being data retrieval for a "potential" civil or criminal matter.

Miller said that could apply to a technician who searches for the source of a computer virus or to parents seeking to find out the names of people their child is messaging or e-mailing. Miller said he also has a client in Dallas who is hired by small companies to find out what their employees are doing on company computers during working hours.

"They are stepping back and forth across this line all the time in what they do," Miller said.

To get a private investigator's license in Texas, an individual has to have a criminal justice degree or serve a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed private investigator. In-house technology operations are exempt, Miller said, and large computer companies can hire one investigator who oversees technicians designated as apprentices.

Failure to obtain a license can result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine, plus $10,000 in civil penalties. Driver said the Private Security Board is not enforcing the law the way the computer companies fear.

He noted the lawsuit was filed in connection to the opening of the Institute for Justice's Texas office.

"Let's get some sort of splash for our new office by filing a lawsuit," Driver said.