House lawmakers in Utah are weighing a package of bills aimed at strengthening privacy protections and protecting citizens when they’re online. One piece of legislation that’s up for consideration would make catfishing a criminal offense in some cases.
Introduced by Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, the bill is pretty straightforward. It makes it a third-degree felony to use a person’s name or persona without their permission on a website or social networking platform “with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any individual.” Impersonating an individual through “electronic mail, instant message, text message, or similar means” comes with a few more bullet-points clarifying what qualifies as a crime and would be classified as a class A misdemeanor.
The bill doesn’t criminalize online anonymity, and arguably the problems that it’s addressing are already illegal. Whether you’re online or IRL, committing fraud or harassment can get you into legal trouble. But this bill would add an extra potential charge, and the new legislation makes it clear that prosecution under this law “does not prevent a prosecution under any other law.” Lisonbee told Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 that “a lot of times people tend to hide behind the guise of social media and online anonymity and don’t really put the consequences of their actions together.”
Utah’s House is also considering legislation that would create a new “data privacy officer” to oversee the state government’s use of tech and ensure it’s using proper procedures to protect citizen’s private data. The position is being created in response to a controversial contract Utah maintained in 2019 with a data surveillance company called Banjo. The company was tasked with monitoring online activity and alerting law enforcement to potential crimes, but the contract drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates. State funding to Banjo was cut but House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, who told Fox 13 that other companies are trying to take its place in the surveillance food chain. Gibson said he expects these bills to pass because “most people just want their private stuff private.”