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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Privacy, Identity Theft and Genealogy -- First in a series

Almost every time I teach a class, especially of older people, and mention purchasing something online or downloading a file from the Internet, I get several individuals who say that they will never buy anything from the Internet because of possible identity theft and privacy concerns. From my perspective as both an attorney and a heavy user of online services, I have come to the conclusion that although there are some real concerns, most of the fear is irrational and based on ignorance. Now, here is are the statistics and facts to support that conclusion:

First, let's examine the idea of "identity theft." How is this defined? Here is one definition:
Identity theft is a crime in which an impostor obtains key pieces of personal information, such as Social Security or driver's license numbers, in order to impersonate someone else. The information can be used to obtain credit, merchandise, and services in the name of the victim, or to provide the thief with false credentials. In addition to running up debt, an impostor might provide false identification to police, creating a criminal record or leaving outstanding arrest warrants for the person whose identity has been stolen. Definitions.
Since many people consider genealogical information to be "private," they automatically assume that if people have access to their "genealogy" they would be in danger of becoming a victim of identity theft. The problem with the definition and with the whole concept of identity theft is that vastly different activities are included in the definition and especially in the common use of term by advertisers attempting to get you to buy their product. One recent study, (Sasha Romanosky, Heinz First Research Paper, May, 2008 Do Data Breach Disclosure Laws Reduce Identity Theft?) listed the most common causes of so-called identity theft; company controlled 56%, lost or stolen wallet 5%, personally knew thief 16%, lost or stolen mail 2%, computer Internet 2%, other 7% with 56% unknown.

The documents and numbers most frequently used for identity theft are credit card numbers, social security numbers, driver's license numbers and passports. Last time I checked, I hadn't entered any of the above numbers into my genealogy.

So, how prevalent is identity theft? Statistics from the Federal Trade Commission show an average identity theft rate of from 43 to 66.3 per 100,000 of population from 2002 to 2006. (See the study above). whereas motor vehicle theft rates ran from 432.9 to 398.4 per 100,000 and violent crime rates from 494.4 in 2002 to 473.5 in 2006. In other words, you are almost ten times more likely to be involved in a violent crime than you are to be a victim of identity theft. Especially, when the danger from computer involvement is only 2% of that figure. In other words, less that 1 in 100,000.

Think about it. Yes, it could happen, but is it really something that should keep you from purchasing a genealogy program online or having an E-mail account? Is identity theft a serious crime? Yes, it is, but so is robbery and you are three or more times more likely to be robbed.

So what is the problem? If the so-called identity theft is not really one of the major criminal challenges in our society, why do so many people become obsessed with keeping their personal information private?

This is what this series is about; obtaining information about living people online. There is no doubt that as genealogists we assume that there is a lot of information online concerning our ancestors (and more all the time). But likewise, we assume that there is only limited information available online about living persons. This assumption is totally false. In the next few posts I will show you why fear of identity theft is misdirected and how you, or anyone else, can find out more information that you could imagine about almost anyone living today.


  1. James,
    Thanks for starting this series on a topic that will be of interest to the members of the California Genealogical Society. I'll be including a link to this article in our January 2010 eNews.

  2. Excellent post James and I look forward to the others in the series. I too encounter the same comments about online commerce and possible identity theft when I am presenting at conferences and genealogical societies.

  3. Most of the overreaction by states and other jurisdictions in passing laws restricting availability of essentially public information are ridiculous. For most of the documents available from state, county, or city agencies, one must pay a fee, which I gladly pay. No potential identity thief is going to pay money to get the information he (or she) is looking for when a good dumpster-dive is going to give them all they want for free.

    I'm not concerned with identify theft in my genealogy work that I may put online; I restrict information to those deceased and those born after 1930, whether alive or deceased. What bothers me is that I put some information out there for free, in the spirit of sharing with other family members and researchers, and some entitles take that information with no notice to me and put it in their for-profit databases, charging others to access it.