Colorado on Tuesday made it illegal to share the personal information of public health workers and their families online so that it can be used for purposes of harassment, responding to an increase in threats to such workers during the pandemic.
Known as doxxing, the practice of sharing a person’s sensitive information, such as a physical or email address or phone number, has long been used against law enforcement personnel, reporters, protesters and women speaking out about sexual abuse. But health care workers have increasingly become a target as their jobs on the front lines of the response to the coronavirus pandemic have placed them at the center of the heated national debate over protective measures and virus misinformation.
“I want to thank all of our health departments and public health workers across the state,” Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado said in signing the bill. “What they’ve been through this last year has been absolutely extraordinary.”
Mr. Polis, a Democrat, said health workers should not have to face the type of abuse to which elected officials had become accustomed.
“You are doing your job as public health officials and you should not be subject to this kind of online targeting,” he said.
State Representative Yadira Caraveo, one of the bill’s sponsors, said: “This is an incredibly important work force all of the time, but especially in the middle of the pandemic. They need to be focusing on what their work is and not dealing with threats.”
Violators of Colorado’s new law face up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The state had already made it a crime to dox law enforcement officers or workers who provide child welfare and adult protective services.
Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert and a fellow at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, welcomed the legislation but questioned why its protections were extended only to public health workers.
“What about the people who faced a lot of doxxing and harassment before the pandemic?” Mr. Schneier said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s like saying it’s illegal to rob truck drivers but it’s OK to rob everybody else. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The term doxxing comes from internet slang that hackers would use to describe collecting and posting private documents, or “docs,” about an individual, usually a rival.
Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed a bill last month prohibiting the doxxing of law enforcement officers. A similar measure signed into law last year in New Jersey also protects judges and prosecutors.
Mr. Schneier praised the push to make doxxing illegal as a way to have the practice be taken seriously by the police and social media platforms, but he said he was concerned about the authorities’ ability to identify perpetrators and about what could happen if such laws apply only to certain individuals.
“You need to be able to hold power accountable,” Mr. Schneier said. “Just like privacy laws are being used to stop people recording the police, anti-doxxing laws could be abused.”