South Dakota Senate Page Scandal Could Prompt Stricter Computer Policies

A sex scandal that led to the censure of a South Dakota state senator could prompt stricter computer policies for all lawmakers here.

State Sen. Ed Olson said he'll recommend that Senate-issued computer use be limited to the legislator and people given permission by the lawmaker to use it for state business.

"I think that will certainly be discussed," said Olson, a Republican.

The move comes after the censure of Democratic state Sen. Dan Sutton for sharing a bed with a former legislative page. During hearings, it was revealed that numerous teenage students had open access to his Senate-issued laptop.

When questioned about how search terms leading to pornographic sites wound up on his computer, Sutton told the committee "there was so many individuals that had access to my computer, free access, had keys to my house, came in freely, used that computer, it could have been numerous individuals."

Like state employees, legislators are bound by a statute barring unlawful use of a computer, but its provisions deal mostly with issues of hacking, stealing data and disrupting access.

As elected officials, lawmakers aren't bound by a state Bureau of Information and Telecommunications policy that says employees can't use the state's technology "to engage in outside business interests, inappropriate, offensive or illegal activities."

The only real guidance on what constitutes appropriate use for legislators is in an agreement they must sign at the start of each two-year term. It mostly ensures that they return what they've borrowed, but it does define the computer's primary purpose as conducting legislative business, said James Fry, director of the Legislative Research Council.

"We don't say the sole function, we say the primary function of the laptop is to conduct the legislative business, and so they could conceivably use the laptop in some ancillary way," Fry said. "If they're home and they want to surf the Web and get the sports scores for the Mets and the Cubs or something, that's not prohibited."

South Dakota is not alone in its lack of clear guidelines.

By 2000, just half of the nation's state legislatures had adopted some sort of computer or Internet use policy, according to a presentation given at a National Association of Legislative Information Technology seminar.

Most policies begin with a statement defining what computers can be used for and then distinguishes between acceptable and inappropriate use. Many also say lawmakers' activity can be monitored, according to the association.

The agreement signed by South Dakota legislators warns that Internet sites visited by computers on the state network can be tracked, but the bureau generally doesn't track legislators' computers, Fry said. Since the bureau is an executive branch agency, its monitoring could lead to separation of powers issues.

Current guidelines also say nothing about giving access to other people, "although you do so at great risk of being humiliated or embarrassed," said Olson, who was on a special committee that heard testimony in the Sutton matter. "I think that's the situation we see in the Sutton case."