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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What's so private about genealogy?

Privacy is a slippery term. When someone claims their privacy has been violated, that could simply mean that they are doing something they don't want someone to know about. For example, do terrorists have privacy? Are they entitled to conduct their activities in private and avoid detection? If you have a pornography habit, are you entitled to keep your habit private? What about in the work place? Over the years I have been aware of situations where inappropriate computer use ended in the termination of employment. What is really the difference between "public" and "private?"

Genealogy has it own brand of privacy and the issue keeps popping up in strange places. Recently, Randy Seaver wrote a blog post entitled, "Does MyHeritage Show Living Persons in Their Family Trees?" His post was in response to a comment from reader about an alleged breach of the commentator's privacy. By the way, I received the same comment, probably from the same reader.

Lately, the discussion about privacy on computers and on the Internet in general has escalated due to a major security breach which showed that the National Security Agency was monitoring telephone calls of private citizens in the United States. The discussion of this issue swirls around whether or not the whistle-blower was a patriot or a traitor. This raises the real issue of whether the government's classified information system is used properly to guard state secrets or only incidentally to prevent political embarrassment?

Back to genealogy. Do dead people have a right to privacy? Some of my commentators seem to think they do. In addition, the issue of privacy seems to get all mixed up with unclear issues of copyright and work product. It isn't at all clear what the concern is here. Are we entitled to selectively reveal or conceal historical facts and details and manage history to our own liking or even our own cultural bias? To answer my own question: dead people do not have any privacy.

I have written on the topic of "What is Privacy?" in previous blog posts on various occasions and in summary, I can only say that there is a huge gap between the public perception of what is and what is not private and any possible legal distinction. However, the core of the discussion about genealogy's involvement in the privacy issues center around online family trees vs. local genealogical databases. In this regard, my rule is simple: don't put anything online you don't want the world to read. Secondarily, don't publish anything you claim as covered by either copyright or work product until you are ready to do so. Simple.

I have recently had this issue, in the context of genealogy, come up in some really strange ways. For example,'s Family Tree usually blocks out references to "Living" people. Strangely enough, most of the people I talk to about this issue, immediately assume that they need to post all that information online about their children and grandchildren simply because it is missing. When they do that, the information is still supposed to be generally unavailable, but it is interesting that the same people that are paranoid about "identity theft" are so anxious to put their entire living family on a public family tree program without any thought of the consequences. Almost none of these people have any idea whether or not this information is private or public. This is absolutely and incredibly strange.

Some of the current genealogical database programs have limited provisions for marking some categories of information as private. The consequence is that when a copy is made for distribution, those items marked "private" are not included. One comment, I received, observed that "in museum collections management software there is the option to keep certain fields unavailable to the public--such as donor contact information or valuations.  The information remains accessible to the program manager, however is not available to the public user of the program.  A similar option for genealogical software programs would be incredibly useful."

To some extent, the genealogical software developers have been sensitive to this issue, with some programs having more extensive options than others. Online programs likewise have preferences concerning living individuals but it is likely that many users are either unaware of the issues or ignore them and put sensitive data online. You may wish to investigate the privacy settings of your own program or programs to make sure they reflect your personal preferences.

Meanwhile, the issue becomes more complicated.


  1. With regard to sensitive information, James, I remarked on one of your other blogs that there's a cultural vein to this which destroys the myth that it's just about living people. In some cultures, publicising sensitive information about someone's ancestors could cause alienation of a family, or even retribution towards them. Although I agree with your suggestion that you shouldn't publish data that you don't want the world to see, it does constitute a bit of a show-stopper for anyone who wants to put their definitive data "in the cloud".

    There may be advantages when using the cloud in areas of data sharing and longevity, but until data-control issues for privacy, sensitivity, and intellectual property are addressed then I don't see local databases disappearing any time soon. This may be less of a problem for people who only want to publish a family tree, or pedigree chart, but it's certainly a big problem for family history. I couldn't possibly commit my own data to cloud storage without some way of controlling visibility for the private or sensitive parts, ideally establishing some IP consideration in the areas of narrative contributions, and indicating whether any copyright relates to pictures, etc.

    In the specific area of privacy, I have suggested elsewhere that it's only a matter of time before a public database gets challenged through Data Protection law - especially in Europe where it's strict - because someone has committed to many details for living relatives (e.g. addresses, adoption details, work record, legal, medical, etc)

    1. Perhaps you could give an example of a culture where the alienation or retribution might occur. There are, of course, issues that probably do not bear repeating. But the issue of sensitivity usually involves, in my experience, living participants in the sensitive subject matter, such as out-of=wedlock births and such. Again, if you don't want the world to read it, don't put it online.

    2. In some countries, finding that an ancestor was from a different ethnic or religious group would be more serious that an out-of-wedlock birth in our countries.

      However, by reaffirming the "don't post it" advice, James, you're also answering your own questions regarding cloud storage and local databases. Put more compactly, family-history data involves such details. If cloud storage is a valid alternative to local databases then we need more control. This was the main thrust of my post above.

  2. Recently I went on to Ancestry to look for information about a VERY distant cousin. Information was supposedly available from a member's tree but, when you clicked on the name, it was all marked private. However the person's parents were shown. Given that and the last few censuses, including the 1940, a complete family could be assembled.
    As you indicated, if it is on public record, then it would not be private any more.