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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

What is public and what is not: A Genealogical Perspective

Have you ever thought about why Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are free? Where do they get the money to support billions of users? These questions are posed and partially answered in a book called:

Goodman, Marc. Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It. 2015.

But the book and the questions pose an even deeper issue for genealogists. We also gather data about people, both dead and living. In our worldwide society today, information and particularly detailed information about individual people has become a commodity to be bought and sold. So the information we voluntarily and perhaps unknowingly share online has become the way the so-called "free" websites, including Google, Microsoft and all of the social networking sites are supported. They gather detailed information about everyone on their websites and sell that information to practically anyone who is interested enough to pay for it. This information gathering operation is not limited to just the larger websites, the entire information gathering and selling operation is almost universally pervasive online. 

What part does the genealogical community play in this information brokering business? A pretty small part actually. The big breakthrough has been the insurgence of DNA testing. The focus of the genealogy websites seems to be issues with copyright and/or other intellectual copyright issues, but a careful reading of their Terms and Conditions. Here is a sample from the Terms and Conditions on the website.
By submitting User Provided Content on any of the Websites, you grant Ancestry and its Group Companies a perpetual, transferable, sublicenseable, worldwide, royalty-free, license to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to create derivative works of, and otherwise use User Provided Content submitted by you to the Websites, to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered.
There really isn't much left to you that could in any context be called "private." I have noted this several times before, but it light of the expanded use of DNA testing, I thought it might be a good idea to review it again.

I guess I can ask an interesting question: what is there about your life that you think is private? Whatever your answer is, it is likely that information about your activities is now more than public in the sense that some entity somewhere has collected a stored and used that information about you either directly or from inferences. For example, suppose you get sick. You believe that your medical history is private. After all, the United States government has passed extensive regulation insuring your privacy. Oh, have they? So, you go to the doctor and get a prescription and then go to Walmart and pay for it with a credit card. Didn't you just tell the credit card company and Walmart part of your medical history? Couldn't your prescription tell them what you have in the way of health problems?

What if both the bank and Walmart have no intention of sharing that information? But along comes a hacker and hacks their account and then sells the information on the open market?

So you get all paranoid and try and cut yourself off of the Internet and everything else. Is that possible? Not in today's world if you want to eat and own anything at all. Even our homeless population is just as monitored as everyone with an extensive online presence.

What do we do about all this? Do we focus on genealogical information and refuse to put our research online because of privacy concerns. That is sort of like walking around in the dry reservoir after the dam has burst and let out all the water. Genealogy is only a tiny and comparatively insignificant part of this issue.

But don't put social security numbers in your genealogy files. If you are worried about what the world knows about you, go on Facebook or Instagram and see what you can find out about everyone else. You are not alone and the issue is global not your own problem.

Oh, by the way. Dead people have no privacy although some famous dead people might.

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