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

Monday, August 19, 2013

Public vs. Private in Genealogy Online

The following response was received from a commentator to a recent post:
I have to take issue with you on some items in your post, Jim.
First, 'supposed crime'? Identity theft IS a crime! 
Posting your personal information to the world on a website is far different than handing your credit card to a waitress or waiter. Your doctor's office has to abide by HIPPA. Etc.
Posting to the Internet family and children's names and information is a personal decision. NOT one that we all need to be 'guilted' into accepting as 'required' in genealogy. It is a highly personal decision and it is NOT one that is necessary to be a genealogy fan, pro, or amateur. We are allowed to share our information with whom we want and if we want. Why do so many try and 'force' us to do this? 
I have had my identity stolen. Not everyone out there in the world is a wonderful person. There are many predators and criminals. Someone tried to scam my mother immediately after my father died.

I am sorry, but posting your family information is a purely personal decision and no one can decide that for you, but yourself!
First let me say, I am extremely sorry that anyone has suffered from a criminal act. But there are no details as to what actually happened either to the commentator or his mother.

I will take all of the comments in order. The first question is one of the easiest to answer. I used the term "supposed crime" for a very simple reason. Despite statements on the United States Department of Justice websites such as this one:
The short answer is that identity theft is a crime. Identity theft and identity fraud are terms used to refer to all types of crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person's personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain.
if you read the statement you can see that the term "identity theft" does not apply to any one crime but to all types of crime... So, in essence, the term "identity theft" is used to designate a very broad spectrum of criminal activities. As I have pointed out previously, everything from losing a credit card to all out assuming someone's identity are considered under this broad definition.

The place to look for information on "identity theft" is to go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Crime Statistics. If you go to their reports, you will quickly see that "Identity Theft" is not listed as a category of crime report from the cities and states to the FBI.  Here is a screen shot of one of the current reports for 2012;

What category does "identity theft" fall into?

Let's look at some more lists of statistics. Here is a screenshot from the U.S. Census Bureau of Law Enforcement, Courts, & Prisons: Crimes and Crime Rates:

Aha! you say. There it is near the bottom of the list: Fraud and Identity Theft--Consumer Complaints by State: 2010. But here is the problem. This isn't a crime statistic, this is a complaint statistic "Based on unverified complaints reported by consumers." In short, there is no verification for these statistics that any crimes have been committed. The complaints listed here by the U.S. Census Bureau come from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, for January–December 2010, March 2011.

But before we look at the FTC reports, look at the reported crime rate for all that is included in identity theft. The reported rate for 2010 (the latest available year) was 81.2/100,000 of the U.S. population. Remember, this is not crimes, but reported complaints. Without going into extensive detail here are some comparisons from the latest reporting year 2009:

  • Robbery 125.1/100,000
  • Burglary 715.7/100,000
  • Larceny-theft 2,035.1/100,000

I think you can see what is happening here. These are actual reported crimes not complaints and the rates are significantly higher than the hugely inclusive identity theft numbers.

So, what is going on here? The next question raised by the commentator involves the statement that giving your credit card to a server is different from posting information on the Internet. My previous point is that we are open to "identity theft" every time we give our credit card to someone. They can easily copy the numbers and the name and use the information. I have never suggested posting any personal financial information or Social Security numbers on the Internet. I am merely suggesting that we do lots of things nearly everyday that have a much, much greater risk than putting genealogy online. Further, I have said many times in the past, if you want to keep something private: DON'T PUT IT ONLINE!!!

A comment on the HIPPA reference. My doctor may have Federal Regulations, but his staff can still steal my credit card number, HIPPA or no HIPPA.

I hope that nothing I have ever said encourages any to put information about living people online, although it is out there already, whether you like it or not. I realize that there are bad people in the world. But there is a serious discontinuity between the public perception of the threat of identity theft and the actuality. I agree that people should make their own decisions about what and what not to put online from their genealogy, but they should not make decisions based on fear. We all need to be aware of the risks we take in putting things online, but we need to do so in light of the real risk not some perceived risk that comes from the media and those who would like to sell us something.

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