RootsTech 2014

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Privacy, Identity Theft and Genealogy -- Privacy worries

Review:

In the last two posts I have discussed identity theft and privacy, two concerns of genealogists working with today's interconnected technology. Privacy is a difficult topic because there are so many aspects to the issue, from personal privacy in daily life, to whether or not banks and other financial institutions can see your personal financial records. Genealogists research families and therefore often encounter personal, private, sensitive topics and information. The main question is how or when is it appropriate to use this private information?

Privacy -- more than Social Security numbers

Whether your great-grandmother had a child out of wedlock or was institutionalized for mental illness may be a sensitive family issue, but has nothing to do with privacy or privacy laws. With some few exceptions, even in Canada with its laws like Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) recognizes that sensitive personal information about a deceased individual diminishes over time and protection ends when an individual has been dead for at least 20 years or the information is in a record over 100 years old. As disturbing as it may be to family members, old dead people have no privacy.

Also, privacy acts and statutes generally do not apply to information that is available to the public through normal communication channels, for example, public court records, recorded land records, addresses, telephone numbers, and many other types of information.

So, where do genealogists come into this picture? Almost all currently sold genealogy programs have a filtering capability to limit the information that is shared about living people. It is not wise to share sensitive, personal information about living people in any event. From a practical standpoint, they are still around to complain. From a realistic standpoint, there is a distinct possibility of violating some law or regulation.

Now, let's look at the commonly used family group record. Is there anything remotely "private" about the information contained on that type of sheet? The answer is not usually. Birth, death, baptism or christening, and marriage information can be obtained from public records, for the most part, and cannot be considered private. However, there are exceptions, such as adoption records. The real issue is availability. What kinds of information is readily available and where can I go to obtain that information?

Most people I talk to about this subject are shocked to learn that almost all of the information they deem private is readily available from public sources on the Internet. Let me give you a few examples:

Let's start with Accurint a fee based LexisNexis company. The key features include
  • People Search… locates neighbors, associates and
  • possible relatives.
  • Phones Plus... track down phone numbers not typically available to increase your chances of finding your subject. Access over 268 Million non-directory assistance records, including cell phone numbers.
  • People at Work… links more than 287 million individuals to businesses and includes information such as business addresses, phone numbers, and possible dates of employment.
  • Relavint™… visually links individuals with businesses, addresses, relatives and vehicles.
  • Advanced Person Search… helps find individuals when only old or fragmented data is available.
Or how about Global Information Services which describes their services as follows:
Search among the 325 million people in our database. Quickly find missing people through an address search, perform a credit check, verify employment history, check status of professional licenses, find information on criminal records, trace phone numbers, and more. You can find information on assets, trusts, limited partnerships, real estate, rents, receivables and inventory, bank accounts and financial information. Access information from county records and state records. Using a social security number, previous address, current address, or even a phone number or a name, you can find information fast and inexpensively. Avoid the hassle and headaches of “do-it-yourself” databanks. Enjoy personalized service and save time and money! search, perform a credit check, verify employment history, check status of professional licenses, find information on criminal records, trace phone numbers, and more. You can find information on assets, trusts, limited partnerships, real estate, rents, receivables and inventory, bank accounts and financial information. Access information from county records and state records. Using a social security number, previous address, current address, or even a phone number or a name, you can find information fast and inexpensively. Avoid the hassle and headaches of “do-it-yourself” databanks. Enjoy personalized service and save time and money!
In case you were wondering, these services and many others like them, really work. In a matter of minutes, I can have a report listing every house you have lived in, every car you have purchased, every bank account, every job, almost anything you can imagine, including a list of all of your neighbors and relatives.

As genealogists, we often spend a lot of time looking for missing relatives. It is possible to "live off the grid" and leave few or no records, but most people, even those trying to do so, leave a lot of records. By using one of these large national databases it is possible to find almost anyone.

So what does this mean for privacy? Truthfully, in today's totally connected world, there is really no such thing as privacy, there are really only practical and social reasons that some information about individuals is more or less difficult to obtain. Notwithstanding this reality, it is still a very good practice and to avoid trouble, to refrain from publicizing private information about living individuals without their express permission. However, in my opinion, the protected information does not include that commonly recorded on family group records, all of which is readily available (even if at a price).

This series will continue.

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