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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Privacy and your life online -- A Genealogist's Viewpoint

What I have to say about the concept of privacy will not make some people very happy. If you are one of those people, you should probably stop reading this post now, before you get upset. There, that is the warning.

Let me start this particular version of my views on privacy with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that you want total privacy. That is, you do not want anyone to know anything about you that you have not expressly given them permission to know. What are some of the things that you cannot do?
  • You cannot drive a car because you will have to provide information about yourself to the licensing agency.
  • You cannot use any kind of credit including using a credit card or debit card because you will have to provide information about yourself to the credit agencies.
  • You will not be able to have any bank accounts ditto.
  • You will not be able to register for school, use a telephone, receive or pay social security, buy real property, get a job or do anything else that would generate "public" information that would be shared with entities that would be more than willing to sell that information to anyone who wanted to pay the price.
  • You cannot buy a house in a town or city because people can drive by and see your address and exactly where you live.
  • You cannot join a church or any other type of social organization.
  • You cannot check a book out from the library, because you would have to supply some information about yourself to obtain a library card.
  • You cannot obtain medical treatment because either the hospital or the doctor will require you to fill out very personal forms before providing any services.
  • You would not be able to obtain any legal advice ditto.
  • You would have to shred or burn all your garbage because this is way that most of the information for identity thefts are obtained. 
  • Of course, it goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that you would have to stay strictly off of the Internet: no cell phones, no computers, not iPads etc. 
Obviously, this list can go on and on. Now almost all of the information generated in the examples  I outline in my hypothetical is freely available to anyone who wants to look for it online. There may be a few details that might be hard to discover, but generally for a few dollars, anyone with the right connections could find out everything that is on my hypothetical list and whole lot more.

What about social security numbers? That is a sticking point with a lot of people. Guess what? My U.S. Army Identification Number was the same as my Social Security Number. Guess what else? My Student Identification Number at the university was also my Social Security Number. Guess what else? Social Security Numbers are public. They are issued by the government and required to be used for a whole list of transactions. The issue that Social Security numbers can be wrongfully used is a problem created by and continued by the government. It just down right silly to have an identification number printed on a piece of cardboard that anyone can copy. The idea of keeping your Social Security number private is a farce.

If you are worried about other than your own privacy your are probably a doctor or a lawyer. Both of these professions have strict ethical rules about disclosing the private information about their clients or patients. But under some circumstances, both can be forced to reveal everything they know. Privacy is always conditional.

I guess my bottom line question is what do people think can be included in an online family tree that is not immediately and publicly available already online? Family trees do not contain Social Security numbers, they do not have medical information, they do not contain even the amount of information required for a library card. Birth dates are readily available online through birth announcements and many other sources, in fact, if you go to the hospital or for medical treatment of any kind, they will routinely ask you your birth date for identification purposes. Do you think family relationships, i.e. parents, grandparents etc. are private?

If you are worried about the privacy of your children or grandchildren, what right do you have to do so? Why do you think that doing family history and recording the information about families is a violation of your privacy? When you are worried about "privacy" you are expressing a manipulated fear that has been created to sell you something, usually a service to "protect" your privacy. If you have apocalyptic visions of dictators taking over the world and killing you and your family, perhaps you need to think about how maintaining your "privacy" is supposed to prevent that from happening.

Over the years, I have known several people who tried to live "off of the grid." They paid with cash and refused to pay income taxes. They usually ended up divorced (a very public event) and very unhappy. In Northern Arizona/Southern Utah, right on the border, we have a whole community of people who try to live "off the grid." Perhaps you have read something about the problems they presently have with that attitude?

Being on the Internet is like living in a huge, very dangerous city. But people still live in New York City and they also work and live on the Internet, like I do. Yes, if you live in New York, you might get mugged. I have several friends and relatives that have been attacked in large cities. You can either move out of the city or you can adjust to the risks involved in living there. The same thing with the Internet, apparently the 3 or so billion people on the Internet have decided that the risks of living in that huge "virtual" city are worth the benefits. Apparently, there are people who do not share that opinion. It is their loss.

If you really want privacy, I suggest that you move to a place where there is no running water, no electricity and is located away from any roads and start "living off the land" (if that is still possible). Otherwise, I suggest that you learn to adapt to a world where information is as prevalent as sunshine.


  1. As I see it, the problem isn't the kinds of information you have outlined. The problem is, what else does someone know, or will they know, or will they try to know? If I choose to keep some of my information private now, does that make life easier or more difficult for me? For my descendants? For the bad guys of the world? I don't know that I have figured out all the answers, but I am reserving, for the most part, the right to keep private that information I wouldn't want my enemy to know.

  2. Loved this one James! Oops, now people can see my name here. (smile)