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Utah may pay to remove its elected officials’ personal information from the internet

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Utah may pay to remove its elected officials’ personal information from the internet

Feb 27, 2024 | 8:08 am ET
By Alixel Cabrera
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Utah may pay to remove its elected officials’ personal information from the internet
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Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, is pictured in the House Chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. (Photo by Spenser Heaps for Utah News Dispatch)

As a gun-carrying conservative, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, thought she would never need dignitary protection, but with rising threats to elected officials, she believes the state should take a preventative measure to protect elected officials — to scrub their personal information from the internet.

That’s the goal of HB538, titled Protection of State Official or Employee Personal Information, a bill that would require the Utah Division of Technology Services to contract a service to wipe off information including phone numbers, addresses, dates of birth, government IDs or social security numbers.

Besides elected officials, the bill would extend the service to state employees who have received threats. This doesn’t include personal information contained in local, state or federal government records, the bill reads. The House voted 70-3 to approve the legislation, clearing the path for a Senate consideration.

“I don’t think that any elected official is more important than any everyday citizen,” Birkeland told the House on Monday. “However, the work that we do should be done without any intimidation, without any fear of our lives. But most importantly, without any fear of our children’s lives.”

The bill’s fiscal note indicates that constantly removing the information from the internet would cost the division $130,000 a year. It’s a cheaper price than requiring Utah Highway Patrol troopers to watch after elected officials, Birkeland said, “which is a huge cost burden to taxpayers.”

In late January, Birkeland shared on X she received threats after sponsoring HB257, Sex-based Designations for Privacy, Anti-bullying, and Women’s Opportunities, which restricts transgender people from accessing bathrooms and locker rooms they identify with in government-owned facilities. 

“I want to especially thank Utah Highway Patrol. Last night, my daughter became emotional as she realized we would be able to sleep in peace because a trooper was spending the night in a car outside our home,” Birkeland wrote after the Legislature passed the bill.

Birkeland has already been doxxed, she said, and her information can’t be scrubbed from people’s phones if they took screenshots of it. Her bill aims to prevent doxxing from happening in the first place.

The Media Coalition, a consortium of news outlets in the state, has been in conversations with the sponsor on the execution of the bill, said Michael Judd, speaking in representation of the group and The Salt Lake Tribune in a committee hearing on Thursday. 

“We believe this is an important bill. It’s important to balance these interests and balance them right,” Judd said. “We look forward to continuing to engage in that process.”

The bill also has bipartisan support.

“It’s not fun when you have to file a police report against somebody, because they don’t like who you are because of your political ideology, or the legislation you run,” said House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “I know there are a lot of people in my district that don’t like this bill. But I think that’s really important because you have to think about your own protection and the protection of your family.”

The state has seen an increase in threats towards elected officials this year, Tanner Jensen, director of the Statewide Information and Analysis Center, said during the Thursday committee hearing. 

“This year alone we’ve seen 40 suspicious activity reports or threats cases sent to our team regarding elected officials,” Jensen said, “whereas five, 10 years ago, we saw just a fraction of that.”

Birkeland argued that the overall goal is to allow public officials to run or vote for policies without the fear of intimidation or harm to their families. If the state doesn’t take action to stop it, she said, it is encouraging that behavior.

“They can’t come to the point where you’re told that a threat assessment has been done and you need security at your home, and your kids have to sit down and have a safety plan and your own 10-year-old has to feel like they have to carry a pocket knife to protect themselves,” she said. “No one signed up for that when they said they wanted to be a public official.”