Nebraska legislators spammed with fake emails appearing to be from constituents

LINCOLN — The emails of support for a 5G wireless bill started piling up in the inboxes of Nebraska state senators.

About 100 emails to Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg. Seventy-five emails to Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston.

The senators, surprised several friends had emailed them about Legislative Bill 389, replied to the emails.

The response was confusion. The constituents didn’t know anything about the bill. And, yes, the constituents’ names and addresses listed at the bottom of the emails were correct, but, no, they hadn’t sent the notes.

The emails appeared to come from people who lived in the senators’ districts.

Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, who also received the emails, said a few people were angry at him, thinking he had sent the original email, which was several paragraphs long and expressed support for the bill.

Gavin Geis, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska, said similar issues have popped up in Texas and on the federal level. It remains uncommon, but could happen more frequently.

Last year Americans’ identities were stolen to make at least 2 million comments on the Federal Communications Commission’s website about net neutrality.

In Texas, a school choice group sent more than 17,000 letters to legislators, but not everyone whose name was used supported the group’s position, according to the Texas Tribune.

Short of checking which server an email came from, there’s no easy way for senators to verify that emails are actually from constituents, said Bill Mahoney, assistant professor in the cybersecurity degree program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

And sending an email that appears to be from another person’s account is not as hard as one might think, Mahoney said. The news isn’t much better for the constituents whose email addresses were used.

“I don’t know what they can do to prevent it,” Mahoney said. “If email is being sent from a server they don’t have access to, I don’t know what kind of measures they could take.”

The bill in Nebraska was introduced by Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson and stalled in the face of a filibuster. The senator said he intends to introduce a similar measure next year.

The bill would have set statewide regulations and fees for companies to install what are called small cell wireless antennas on new and existing poles in public spaces. The small cells can handle existing wireless traffic in dense urban settings and will help upgrade to faster fifth-generation technology known as 5G.

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile lobbied hard for the bill.

Williams said the emails colored his judgment on the bill because “it didn’t happen by accident.”

“It changes how you feel about some of these emails,” Williams said.

Hansen said it’s hard to tell which emails are legitimate.

Senators often receive form emails written by various groups to help people craft a message to lawmakers. The fake emails looked like another form email.

Geis said he hasn’t found any laws in place to actually address the problem of misusing someone’s name to represent an opinion to legislators. He said next session the Legislature should come together to make sure there is a system in place to protect people. Geis said there needs to be accountability so average Nebraskans can be sure their names aren’t being used without their knowledge in efforts to influence lawmakers.