Utah should pay to scrub personal info of elected officials, state employees from the internet, lawmakers say

The House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee unanimously approved the bill proposed by Rep. Kera Birkeland.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, presents her bill to narrow Utah's legal definitions of sex to exclude transgender people (HB 257) at a meeting of the House Business and Labor Committee at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. Birkelands bill to protect public officials' personal information passed out of a House committee on Thursday.

A Utah House committee unanimously approved a bill to scrub the personal information of elected officials and state employees from the internet, because, lawmakers said, of a rising number of violent threats against public officials.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said Thursday afternoon she was offered protection from the Utah Highway Patrol because of a threat against her, but she refused. Birkeland told her colleagues on the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday that her stance has changed.

“As I’ve talked to more and more public officials, the threats are increasing. The intimidation is increasing,” the Republican lawmaker said, “My concern is five years down the road, someone will actually show up at someone’s home and harm their children. Someone will show up and assault someone.”

Under HB538, a state-level elected official, which includes the governor, lieutenant governor and members of the Legislature, can ask to have the state pay for a service to scrub online databases and remove their address, telephone number, date of birth or other identifying information. A substitute version of Birkeland’s bill adopted Thursday afternoon expands that service to any state employee who asks.

Tanner Jensen, Director of the Statewide Information and Analysis Center, said they’ve seen a spike in the number of threats directed at lawmakers in recent years.

“Just this year alone, we’ve seen 40 suspicious activity reports or threat cases sent to our team regarding elected officials. We see many of those threats leveraging online open-source information to target elected officials,” Jensen said.

Providing the service just for lawmakers would cost the state an estimated $60,000, but Birkeland said that would be preferable to the status quo, which sometimes requires tasking the highway patrol to monitor a lawmaker’s house following a threat. An updated cost for covering all state employees was not immediately available on Thursday.

“If we can mitigate that by having this tool to ensure that no one can access that (private information) in the first place, it actually could be a savings and allow the highway patrol to do what they want to do, which I guarantee is not sitting outside our house at night,” Birkeland said.

Gov. Spencer Cox has a full-time security detail provided by the Highway Patrol. Following the 2020 election, then-Lt. Gov. elect Deidre Henderson was provided round-the-clock protection by the Utah Highway Patrol because of threats against her. Those security arrangements remained in place until last year when lawmakers eliminated funding for her full-time protection on the final night of the 2023 session.

The bill specifically exempts judges from asking to hide their information from the public. Birkeland did not immediately respond to questions about the judicial carve-out.

The House committee unanimously approved the bill, sending it to the full House for consideration.