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

Monday, June 4, 2012

Genealogy and Privacy

The relationship between genealogy and privacy is very complex. Like many things in our modern age, we speak of privacy in terms of "rights." Fundamentally, privacy is related to the U.S. Constitutional concept expressed in the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
But our present collective beliefs concerning privacy extend well beyond the rather limited concept of governmental searches and seizures. In the context of genealogy, we seem to have an obsession with the issues of disclosure of "personal or private" information about our ancestors. There is also a consideration as to the propriety of including information concerning people that are still living. Determining the appropriate level of disclosure is and should be a concern to all who record personal data about individuals.

First and foremost, privacy is an issue with the living and not the dead. Only so far as communications about the dead impact the living can there be any concern about the rights of privacy for the deceased. That said, if I were to print my ancestor's diary, full of slander and accusations, would there be a privacy issue? Assume that all the people mentioned are now dead, is there still and issue with privacy? This is where privacy becomes more of an issue with decency, preserving family relations and common courtesy rather than an issue in itself.

Interestingly, the concept of privacy and the word itself cannot be translated into many other languages. The concept simply does not exist. See Wikipedia:Privacy. Also, very few of the general privacy concerns, such as those dealing with search and seizure, relate directly to the acquisition and dissemination of genealogical data.

In our online world, there is an extremely blurred concept of privacy. For an example, if you read the posts on you will quickly learn that very little of human behavior is now considered private by those participating online. This brings up a fundamental principle that any level of privacy can be voluntarily waived by disclosure. If I wish to relate the details of my recent hospital visit to the world on Facebook, I can do so and I have then effectively waived any "right" I had to keep that information confidential or private.

Another example of what is not private at all, will also illustrate the point. A Social Security Number or Driver's License Number has nothing whatsoever to do with privacy. These are arbitrarily assigned by government agencies and there is no mechanism for preventing their disclosure.

Privacy has the most centralized relationship to the ability to converse or communicate without being overheard or recorded. It also has some core relationships of very personal activities such as personal hygiene and family activities. Privacy stops short when any activity becomes defined by the community at large as illegal.

As you can probably guess by now, privacy is an ill defined term. Its vagueness and its common usage obscure some of the fundamental rights involved, but in examining the concepts, you can see that little about privacy applies directly to genealogy. Most, if not all, of the concerns can be addressed by simply avoiding the inclusion of information about living individuals in any publication of genealogical data. It can be further extended to any information that would adversely impact living individuals, such as diaries and letters from immediate ancestors.

The other concerns about personal privacy my still have some place in our society, but they have little to do with the preservation and dissemination of genealogical information.

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