Colorado on Tuesday made it illegal to share the personal information of public health workers and their families online so that it could be used for harassment purposes in response to the increasing threats to these workers during the pandemic.

Known as doxxing, it is the practice of sharing sensitive information about a person, such as: A physical address, email address, or phone number has long been used against law enforcement officers, reporters, protesters, and women talking about sexual abuse. However, healthcare workers have become increasingly a target as their work at the forefront of the coronavirus pandemic response has put them at the center of the heated national debate over safeguards and misinformation about viruses.

Health workers in Colorado and other states destroyed their property and received death threats and harassing phone calls after their personal information was posted online.

“I would like to thank all of our health departments and public health workers across the state,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis when signing the bill. “What they went through last year was absolutely extraordinary.”

Mr Polis, a Democrat, said health workers should not be exposed to the kind of abuse that elected officials had become accustomed to.

“You do your job as a public health officer and shouldn’t be subject to this type of online targeting,” he said.

State representative Yadira Caraveo, one of the sponsors of the law, said: “This is an incredibly important workforce all along, but especially in the middle of the pandemic. They need to focus on their work and not deal with threats. “

Violations of Colorado’s new law face up to 18 months in prison and a fine of $ 5,000. The state had already made it a crime to dox law enforcement officers or workers who provide child and adult protection services.

Bruce Schneier, cybersecurity expert and member of the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, welcomed the legislation but wondered why its protection was only extended to public health workers.

“What about the people who were exposed to 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 okay to rob everyone else. That doesn’t make sense to me. “

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The term doxxing comes from the Internet slang that hackers use to describe the gathering and posting of private documents, or “documents” about a person, usually a rival.

Doxxing is not a federal crime, although federal laws regarding stalking and conspiracy may apply to the practice. Colorado is one of several states taking steps to turn doxxing into a crime.

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a bill last month banning doxxing law enforcement officers. A similar measure, signed into law in New Jersey last year, also protects judges and prosecutors.

Legislators in Nevada, Oregon, and West Virginia have also discussed anti-doxing laws, some of which would make it illegal to dox anybody, not just public employees.

Mr Schneier praised the urge to make doxxing illegal to take the practice seriously from the police and social media platforms, but said he was concerned about the authorities’ ability to identify perpetrators and what could happen if such laws were enacted, they would only apply to certain individuals.

“You have to be able to hold power to account,” said Schneier. “Just like data protection laws are used to prevent people from recording the police, anti-doxing laws could be abused.”