Texas Law Probably Does Not Require PI License To Fix Spyware-Infested Computers

Dries Janssens, a computer repair shop owner in Allen, Texas, is worried that a 2007 law passed by the state legislature requires computer repair technicians to have private investigator licenses to perform “simple computer repairs such as malware removal.” We’re not sure if the law was just badly written or written on purpose at the urging of the state’s private investigator lobby (which Janssens suggests), but it certainly seems like a bad idea. Update: according to this article sent by our weekend editor Carey, it’s just badly written (“It needs some tightening up,” says one lawmaker) and should only apply to the private security industry.

Here’s Janssens’ take on the law:

According to a lawsuit initiated by the newly-established Texas Chapter of the Institute for Justice, the Texas Private Security Board, a state agency, is interpreting this as including simple computer repairs such as malware removal.

The law provides for punishment of up to one year in jail and $4,000 in fines, and up to $10,000 in civil penalties. Additionally, any customer knowingly enlisting the help of an unlicensed computer repair person (that is, without a PI license) is subject to the same punishment.

Matt Miller, Texas Institute for Justice Executive Director and lead attorney on the case, notes that “it makes no sense to require a computer repairman with 10 or 20 years of experience to get a degree in criminal justice just to continue working in his occupation. This law will drive up the price of computer repair for everyone, and that’s exactly what the private investigations industry wants.”

Janssens points out that “to get a PI license, one needs either a criminal justice degree (with all associated costs) or a three-year apprenticeship under a licensed PI.”

But the Daily Times says repair technicians’ fears are unfounded, and that the lawsuit is in part a publicity stunt by the organization that filed it:

The author of the bill, Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, told the Houston Chronicle that computer techs are misinterpreting the law and that the lawsuit is simply a publicity stunt by The Institute for Justice.

The lawsuit marked the launch of the group’s Texas chapter.

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, agreed the new law probably is being misread.

“It needs some tightening up and some clarification, but I have been assured that they will be very cautious about enforcing it,” Hilderbran said. “(Driver’s) intent was that this rule only be used when analyzing data for investigative purposes.”

An e-mail sent to Hilderbran from DPS states that “only computer forensics officials must be licensed under the Private Security Act” and that those who only retrieve information from computer databases and pass it on to another person are not subject to the new law.

We just can’t get over the idea of Geek Squad members all carrying around P.I. badges. Beyond the obvious concerns that over-eager Geek Squadders will abuse their power to, um, “privately investigate,” the Texas Best Buy stores will have to remodel their in-store zones to provide a door with a frosted glass window for customers to walk through.

“Geek Squad, P.I.? Computer Repair Uproar in Texas” [ITPlanet.com] (Thanks to CaptZ!)
“Computer techs fight private-investigator law” [Daily Times]
(Photo: Joost Assink)

Comments

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  1. CaptZ says:

    Wohoo…..my first story posted!

  2. dweebster says:

    …can we just give Texas back to Mexico and be done with them?

    (They can keep G.W.B. and “Best” Buy too).

  3. phospholipid says:

    “Journal Log – March 7, 1962. She blew like a cool summer breeze, her lips soft like a cows cheek, hair inviting and warm. I knew something was wrong by the way she sat down, like falling into a fever. Maybe it was the Dell computer in her lap, I’ll never know. Before she even said anything I knew it could only be one thing. Bad Powersupply “

  4. snoop-blog says:

    This is what happens when old people try to make laws governing technologies they don’t understand. I’m picturing this being passed through by people as old as my grandpa who would believe anything you said about computers so long as you look twenty something. Is it just me or does just being in your late teens-twentys old people just assume you know everything about pc’s and when you don’t they give you this attitude like you just didn’t want to help them but you really knew how to.

  5. TouchMyMonkey says:

    Next thing you’ll be telling me is that I need a CDL to open a pizza restaurant. Texans (especially fake ones who went to Yale) sure do suck at government, don’t they.

  6. nicless says:

    “(b) For purposes of Subsection (a)(1), obtaining or furnishing information includes information obtained or furnished through the review and analysis of, and the investigation into the content of, computer-based data not available to the public.”

    I’m sorry, but this is obviously not going to stand up to ANY challenges in court because you can remove adware without accessing data not available to the public

  7. BreakMyWindow says:

    Wow, this facist law coming from a state that prides itself in freedom and independence. I would shoot any person on my property that tried to charge me more than $40/hour for computer repair and in Texas that would probably fly.

  8. What scares me is this bit of verbage

    “any customer knowingly enlisting the help of an unlicensed computer repair person”

    Does a transaction need to take place? Exchange of services, or money for service, or does this apply to ANY “enlisted aid”?

    If the latter this means that if I help my friend/Mother/Kissing Cousin with their home PC and that involves the removal of “Malware” I can go to jail?! (not that I live in TX mind you).

  9. FreemanB says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but reading the statute, both the quoted portion in the article and the full version, I don’t see any way this could be reasonably interpreted the way that it is stated. As Nicless says, it won’t hold up to any court challenge.

  10. @phospholipid

    Should I, or should I not be turned on by that?

    I’m confused

  11. fostina1 says:

    wonder if this applies to border patrols.

  12. (Full disclosure-I have a Tennessee PI license and I work for a Security firm)

    This story might be taken with a grain of salt. The three year apprentice license in Texas is relatively easy to obtain, provided you work for a company willing to sponsor your apprenticeship.

    I can see why businesses would be opposed as it would place undue burden on costs associated with maintaining the licenses, but at the same time it makes sense for people who are going to be handling your sensitive personal information to be licensed by the state to do so. Most PI licenses are governed by a Licensing board that regulates those who obtain these licenses. Considering the amount of times that GeekSquad has completely violated peoples privacy without authorization, this seems to be a way to regulate this, albeit in a heavy-handed manner.

  13. Karl says:

    I’m pretty sure people are over-reacting to this. Given the language of the law, it seems like it’d only apply to people offering computer forensic services, and given that the results of these services might end up as evidence in court, it sorta makes sense for them to be licensed.

  14. GearheadGeek says:

    The law actually reads like it could be used to prosecute people who USE spyware, since what it mentions when referring to computer systems is the use of data and databases “not available to the public.” Let’s have a test prosecution of some company that distributes spyware and see!

  15. angryhippo says:

    What I never get is when they pass BS laws like this, they come back and say “oh don’t worry your pretty little head, we’ll be vewy vewy cautious in how we enforce it”. So is it a bad law, or are you saying that it will be selectively enforced?

    “(Driver’s) intent was that this rule only be used when analyzing data for investigative purposes.” Then write the law so it says that! Either they are incompetent, or they have underhanded motives.

  16. SkokieGuy says:

    Information found on computers is often used as evidence in criminal prosecution. Child porn, terrorism, adultery, divorce cases, etc.

    If any information gleaned from a computer is used to prosecute, yes, I would want the person handling my computer to be trained in law enforcement, rules of evidence, custody, etc.

    If the local computer geek working at Best Buy calls the cops because of something he found on your PC, wouldn’t you want to know if the PC was left unsupervised in the repair shop (who else could have tampered with it) and wouldn’t you want someone who truly knows the law? You could easily spend the rest of your life in jail because of the difference in a few bytes of info.

  17. Prions says:

    @SkokieGuy: Aye but you can find out when that info was added to your computer. Also there is camera footage and so on and so forth.

    Finally they don’t just charge based off that info but they just get “just cause” in order to investigate more fully. This means that if they find more illegal stuff based on ISP info or data media in your house..then they prosecute. (They being police.)

  18. SkokieGuy says:

    Prions – there’s camera footage of a computer being repaired at the local computer joint, BB, CC, etc.?

    I thought (like in the case of Apple), you hand your computer over at the store, they look at it, then depending on the repair, its sent to a central repair facility. Seems like plenty of opportunity for untraceable tampering.

    I don’t know how to do it, but I have to believe it ain’t hard to add an incriminating file in a way that makes the creation date appear to be earlier.

  19. Mira Mi Huevo!!! says:

    @dweebster: Do you really want to start another international incident like the current war, but with our south neighbors… I think Mexicans would be happier if we just shot missiles at them.

  20. sporesdeezeez says:

    @phospholipid: I’m sure you didn’t do it for the kudos, but since no one else has said it…I liked your story.

    The film-noir voice-over was very apparent to me, very fitting, and very funny.

  21. synergy says:

    I have a couple of computer tech friends here and they’re pissed about this stupid law.

  22. synergy says:

    @HurtsSoGood: YES! Points for pointing out the Yalie is NOT from Texas!

  23. seismic007 says:

    Welcum to Tex-uss! Funny how the sanctions for illegally obtaining computer repair service are now similar to those for obtaining prostitution services in this state. I guess there will be a new musical coming out: “The Best Little PC Repair Shop in Texas.”

  24. backbroken says:

    Entrapment!! The undercover officer planted that stick of RAM in my pocket I swear!!

  25. And here I thought that this was just an attempt by TX to head off MediaSentry at the pass…

  26. mr mike says:

    I’m glad I live very far from Texas

  27. Cliff_Donner says:

    “It needs some tightening up and some clarification, but I have been assured that they will be very cautious about enforcing it,” Hilderbran said.

    @angryhippo: +1!! No shit!! When laws are passed, it needs to be assumed that the broadest interpretation will be enforced. “Tighten it up” and “clarify” it before you codify it!! Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, and any other elected official who voted for this, needs a smack upside the head.

  28. wellfleet says:

    @phospholipid: brilliant!!!!!! for some reason, this really made me smile.

  29. TacoChuck says:

    By the way Michigan passed a law like this as well and it went into effect May 28th. Violation is a 4 year felony.

    See section 2(b):

    [www.legislature.mi.gov]

    And while I think the bill is very sloppy, much like the TX law, I can see how it could be misinterpreted as well as how it can be interpreted as not applying to plain old computer consultants.

  30. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    I work in IT in Houston, and the law and its illiterate proponents can (plug your ears now if you disapprove of strong language) kiss my ass.

  31. milk says:

    @dweebster: Ew, please don’t. We’re just simple-minded, good-natured, gun-totin’ folks. We don’t mean any harm. Come visit, we’ll through a turkey in the fryer just for you and stock up on Lone Star.

  32. amyschiff says:

    The title of this made me think this was a post on The Onion

  33. EliseDawgette says:

    A Texas judge said the company running a red-light camera was acting illegally because it did not have a private investigator license. On the basis of this ruling, motorists are challenging traffic tickets. New Texas legislation regulating certain electronic legal evidence work is causing problems for robo-cop traffic enforcement. See deails: http://legal-beagle.typepad.com/wrights_legal_beagle/2008/12/e-discovery-forensics-private-investigator-license-for-computer-data-collection-and-assessment.html –Ben