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

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Commentary on Privacy and Family Trees

Privacy is the one consistent issue that comes up almost every time I talk about family tree programs. If I even mention putting your genealogy online in a family tree, somebody in the class has an almost violent negative reaction. From my perspective as a trial attorney for 39 years and as an over average participant in the online community, I have some very strong opinions about the whole subject. I can say this with certainty: the usual perception of the extent of "privacy" is far greater and more encompassing than the reality. Privacy is one of those words everyone uses and no one really knows what it means. Most of the so-called "privacy laws" where they exist, deal with extremely limited and very narrow areas of our lives.

I often see an almost morbid preoccupation with a false idea of "privacy." This comes partly from an overly developed fear of "identity theft." I have written about the common misconceptions about identity theft many times. I can cite actual statistics from the FBI, FCC, and other U.S. government agencies showing that the incidence of true, hard-core identity theft is extremely rare. Most of what is called identity theft is actually based of "complaints" not actual crime statistics.

Genealogists as a whole seem overly preoccupied with the idea that what they do in genealogy has any impact whatsoever on either the issue of privacy or the inordinate fear of identity theft. By the way, there are huge commercial entities whose existence depends on engendering a false sense of privacy and a fear of identity theft.

Let's get some definitions going here. First, dead people do not have any right to privacy. Genealogists are and should be concerned primarily with dead people ergo, they should not have concerns about privacy except their own or the very restricted few live people they insist in including in their records. Our online world has largely erased privacy considerations from huge areas of our lives. Take Facebook for instance. If you want to get an idea about privacy, spend a few hours watching the stream of posts on Facebook. You will almost certainly see that almost any subject, no matter how personal, can be seen in a few minutes or hours spent on watching the program. Here is one sample from a current Facebook stream:
My grandson had a seizure last night/this morning they are having a hard time making it stop. They had to intubate him and he is now in the PICU.
OK, so this is a serious issue and very sad, but is it something that warrants posting on a very public website that goes out to the whole world. I could copy many such "announcements" including very personal and some very disturbing. 

Presently, I have at least a dozen or more programs that "require" a connection to my Facebook account. Most of these programs have nothing at all to do with social networking. If your son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter is regularly posting to Facebook and including "selfie" photos (if you don't know what this is, you should find out) then why are you worried to include their name on a pedigree chart, even one that is public. You are not protecting their privacy. They have already given up what little they had. You are merely acting out your own concerns and fears, no matter how groundless. Perhaps you have never seen any of the number of programs on Facebook that allow you set up a network of all of your relatives near and far. That information can be and is automatically fed into a whole variety of other databases and programs. 

If you would like some interesting reading on the subject, see

Almost all family tree websites, and all those of the larger genealogy companies take the issue of showing live people very seriously. But how does a serious policy in this area make any difference if your children and grandchildren are online day and night making personal comments on Facebook?


  1. Thank you! It is amazing the amount of things that are posted on FB.

  2. James, your comments are spot on! I think you are correct about the generation who have given up their privacy to social networking. However, as a public librarian in northern Wisconsin where, two miles out of town, a cell signal, much less broadband access, is a miracle, I see a generation who will generate crickets when their names are searched in Google. They actually have some privacy left to protect; in the workshops I call Computer Coaching, we work through the consequences of their forays into the wired world. Folks will be suspicious of what they don't understand; making them understand more about how the Internet works breaks down those walls of suspicion.

  3. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) allowed the LDS Church to scan all of its membership applications and all proof documentation for every generation related to those applications including birth certificates of living individuals (spouses and ex-spouses), divorce decrees with Social Security Numbers of the husband/wife and children with their full names, dates of birth & driver's license number ...

    The DRT only allowed active members to decline to allow their full membership application and proof documents on-line ...

    So, any living resigned / former DRT member was not contacted or allowed to decline to have their application or proof documentation placed on-line ...

    The living former spouses of any former or current member was not contacted to get their permission to allow their original birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce decree, etc. to be placed online

    The DRT requires applicants to provide a copy of the birth certificate, marriage record and divorce decree for every spouse of every women named on the application ... living or deceased ...

    The DRT will not accept secondary sources ... you are required to provide only primary source documents ....

    The DRT has placed over 386,000 original documents online for anyone in the world to download including the birth certificates of living individuals, and many documents where the social security numbers were not redacted ...

    It is a nightmare disaster waiting for some to steal someone's identity since the original records, contact info, social security numbers are all online with or without the permission of the living individual ...

    The DAR will not release page 1 of any application because it contains the contact information (name, address, telephone number, e-mail, etc) ... nor will the DAR release any documentation for the first three generations of any application ...

    However, the DRT has placed on-line all contact information and original records of all living individuals of its membership through 2012 ...

    1. I think you point out an interesting issue. From the tone of your comment, it appears that you may not be aware how easy it is to obtain all the information you outline from public record sources. I am sure I will write about this issue again.

  4. You raise an important question, and share an interesting perspective, but it's not quite clear to me where you draw the line between privacy as a legal concept and privacy as a feeling or sensitivity that deserves respect.

    Dissemination (online or anywhere else) of limited genealogical information about living people isn't generally considered a legal violation of anyone's privacy (with the possible exception of some cases of adoption).

    But not everything that isn't a violation of the law is wise or ethical or broadly viewed as socially acceptable.

    Public record searches may allow you to construct an intimate picture of a person that would feel to the person in question like a violation of privacy, even though it consists wholly of publicly available data. By putting that publicly available data into a coherent context, the genealogist may at least seem to transform it into something else.

    Many people feel that it is bad form, at least, to publish the names and birthdays and family relationships of those who are still alive without first obtaining the permission of the people most intimately associated with the information. This may even be the case when the information disseminated is publicly available information about someone's deceased parent, let alone about someone's child.

    The fact that someone's child or grandchild may be online posting "selfies" (of themselves, right? by definition) has no real bearing on this question. Self-exposure can feel very different, and consequently is different, from being exposed by someone else. Some may not find that distinction important, but all that matters is that there are those who do. Discretion may seem obsolescent to some people, but we still live in a world that contains people who feel otherwise, so it still has to enter into our calculations.

    Where there are sensitivities that may be offended, a sensitive person will tread carefully and make every reasonable effort not to give offense, whether they share those particular sensitivities or find them old-fashioned or naïve.

    This, and not a misconceived idea of privacy, is the reason that this kind of carelessness about living people's sensitivities is deprecated by many genealogists.

    It's inconvenient to deal with this problem, and there's no perfect solution, but genealogists should be used to that, right?

    1. Very well said !

    2. I think a major point is getting lost in the controversy: your primary concern as a genealogist is with the dead. If you are freaking out about living data, then don't include it. However, you don't need to freak out about living data.

  5. What a breath fresh air to the question "privacy". As pointed out in other articles on the subject hard core criminals would not waste their time looking at families trees. There more sophisticated ways to get personal information quicker and far more accurate. Far too many are far too precious about privacy - you don't have any if someone is determined to know your business.

  6. Facebook is a double-edged can be used to your advantage or a disadvantage against you. Its a living timeline where people have no qualms broadcasting what they are doing, when they are doing it and who they are doing it with. When someone commits a crime, the police or FBI (for example) access their Facebook account and have a goldmine of information at their fingertips. I have seen it reported on the news and there is often a link to that person's profile page so that you can see a picture of the accused (if available), anything they posted and the people they are associated with if their privacy settings were set to public. Even I can view certain content as a non-Facebook user. I remember reading some quotes from Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, regarding people willingly giving up personal information:

    "The question isn't, 'What do we want to know about people?', It's, 'What do people want to tell about themselves?'"

    "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people," he said. "That social norm is just something that has evolved over time."

    "I have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, etc. People just submitted it. I don’t know why they 'trust me'"

    Maybe some people have a false sense of security when it comes to "privacy" on Facebook because of this "trust"?

  7. My genealogy includes two family trees of all descendants of certain ancestors. I have a LOT of living people in my trees, and I am very careful not to put that information online for two reasons. First: the combination of full name, date of birth and mother's maiden name of a hundred people in one convenient place is asking for trouble. Second: my living distant cousins are much more likely to give me their information if they know I will keep it confidential!

  8. I find that so many trees have been compromised by entering bogus names to fill in that "empty" space that none of them can be trusted. so if you have to verify all of it, why not do the work yourself.with the aid of very knowledgeable people on line, such as the rootsweb lists.
    I tried to have an error brought to the attention of someone and there was no way to do it unless I joined that company at an extraordinary cost. So it is still out there being copied as correct.

  9. Stephen Comfort-MasonFebruary 8, 2014 at 8:00 AM

    "Privacy" went away a long time ago. Today, when it is possible to get a full background check on anyone for the payment of a small fee, privacy is a joke.

    What is troubling, and even dangerous, and deserving of real concern, is the information a family historian can acquire that truly hurt a family. I know many things about family members, living and dead, that would cause tremendous upset if known. Those are the things I worry about, not some totally non-functional concept of "privacy".

  10. I enjoyed reading your comments and they are spot on. However, that still doesn't explain why our government is now limiting the SSI Death Index information. Maybe someone should have asked you to speak before them before they made their decision?

    1. The limitation of the SSDI has to do with current American politics and the inability of the government to create workable policies regarding immigration and perhaps guest worker status.

      Instead of fixing the problem, they do things like closing the SSDI — legislative changes that might look good to some segment of the voting population, but really don't fix anything.

      See, for example, a recent wrinkle to the entire story, new online databases that generate reasonable identities: