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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Genealogical Crisis of the Month: Government Destruction or Restriction of Records

After writing my short quasi-satirical piece on the Genealogical Crisis of the Month Club, I found that my example of the crisis concerning governmental restrictions limiting access to information was a real concern. With some small effort, I tracked down a bill before the Parliament of Australia entitled the "Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015." The online news reports of the effects of this bill are drastic. Here is one such article on the ExtremeTech website, "New Australian bill could outlaw VPNs in bid to stamp our Hulu, Netflix 'piracy'." A "VPN" is a Virtual Private Network or a network that uses a public telecommunication infrastructure, such as the Internet, to provide remote offices or individual users with secure access to their organization's network. See What is happening here is that the TV and movie companies are claiming, without actually proving, that Netflix and Hulu are violating their copyrights. Rather than forcing the companies to prove their claims, the government is contemplating passing a bill to limit online access to the services by giving the companies the right to shut down or limit the Australian public's access to Netflix and Hulu.

It may seem a jump from limiting access to some TV shows and movies to limiting genealogists from accessing records about dead people, but it is really all about the same conflicting interests: copyright, privacy and government control. You might not have noticed at all, but there was a recent controversy over the availability of the United States, Social Security Administration's Death Master File and the resulting Social Security Death Index or SSDI. The gist of that ongoing controversy was the fact that the Social Security Numbers of dead people, including dead children, from the SSDI were being used to generate false claims to the Internal Revenue Service. Rather than simply have the Internal Revenue Service check the SSDI or the Death Master File to verify the validity of Social Security Numbers, the United States Congress, after hearing testimony, decided to limit access to the records to everyone. Companies who were putting the SSDI online, such as and were accused of "aiding and abetting the fraud." In other words, those who were simply providing public record information were the "cause" of the people who were illegally using the information. So, just as it apparently happening in Australia, the United States Legislature passed a bill limiting access to the records to the public rather than addressing the root of the problem, the lack of competence of the Internal Revenue System. This was done without one shred of evidence that anyone had actually used either or to defraud the government. See H.R.295 - Protect and Save Act of 2013113th Congress (2013-2014). For a more current summary of this Bill, which was passed on 26 December 2014, see "Last Chance to Comment on Rules Regarding Social Security Death Index Access."

The practical effect of the passage of the law is that Social Security Numbers have disappeared from the records supplied by etc. in their SSDI listings. Ordering a copy of the person's SSA 711, Application for Social Security became much more difficult and expensive.

You may have also heard that the 1890 U.S. Federal Census was lost in a fire. That is true for part of the records, but what happened to most of the records was that they were destroyed by the U.S. Government. See "First in the Path of the Firemen"The Fate of the 1890 Population Census, Part 1 By Kellee Blake.

I could go on and on about this subject. There is no question in my mind that the diseases talked about each month in the old Reader's Digest and the current diseases and conditions highlighted in my current AARP Magazine are real, the question, of course, is how do we as individuals react to and confront this ongoing litany of crisis? If I have learned one thing in the last 40 years of being a lawyer is that there is almost always a work around for any disaster: unless you end up dead, you fight back. If you want a place to start for worrying about the loss of genealogically important records, you can start with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and oh, by the way, you might discover that no one really knows when it happened. See Wikipedia: Destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

1 comment:

  1. "which was passed on 26 December 2015" - Typo to fix