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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The End of Privacy From a Genealogical Perspective

Recently, there have been several huge internet hacking events. Hacking of emails has even made it into U.S. national politics. Whether we like it or not, genealogists are included as the victims of this nefarious online activity. The compromised information includes everything from bank records to credit card and social security numbers. What is even more disconcerting are the revelations of government surveillance of Google and Yahoo accounts and even telephone records for ordinary U.S. citizens.

In a Pew Research Center report entitled "The state of privacy in post-Snowden America," those surveyed indicated that they had taken the following actions to avoid surveillance:
Some 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints, but many say they would like to do more or are unaware of tools they could use. The actions that users have taken range from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet protocol (IP) address. And 55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations or the government. Many say the purpose of their attempted anonymity is to avoid “social surveillance” by friends and colleagues, rather than the government or law enforcement. 
At the same time, many express a desire to take additional steps to protect their data online. When asked if they feel as though their own efforts to protect the privacy of their personal information online are sufficient, 61% say they feel they “would like to do more,” while 37% say they “already do enough.” Even after news broke about the NSA surveillance programs, few Americans took sophisticated steps to protect their data, and many were unaware of robust actions they could take to hide their online activities. Some 34% of those who said they were aware of the NSA surveillance programs in a July 2013 survey (30% of all adults) had taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. But most of those actions were simple steps, such as changing their privacy settings on social media or avoiding certain apps, rather than tools like email encryption programs, “don’t track” plug-ins for browsers or anonymity software.
 These types of actions show an innate distrust of many online companies and government activities. As genealogists, some of this distrust spills over and is applied to online genealogical programs. The Pew Research Center report also shows that few American adults are confident that their records will remain private and secure. I encounter this distrust and insecurity regularly as I talk to people about putting their family records online. The irony of this situation is that genealogists are concerned about putting their ancestral information online when much of the information they have acquired came from public and very accessible sources such as United States Federal Census Records and vital records.

As a genealogist I would rather not see or have online information about any personal records of living people. The fact that most of the large online genealogy programs make an effort to keep that information private, does not console me.

But what is reality? What is privacy in today's saturated world of communication technology? The answer is very difficult to ascertain. For example, financial information is anything but private if you have a bank account and use credit cards, almost every transaction you make is highly public in nature. There is precious little information about you and your family that cannot be discovered if someone had enough time and money to do so.

Genealogy is not about you. It is about dead people and dead people have no privacy. As long as you don't put any of your own "private" information on a family tree online, you are no better or worse off for the effort from the standpoint of privacy. Genealogy is not a privacy issue. The only real issue out there is the ridiculous and silly continued use of grandparents names or other such information for "security" purposes. Bottom line, genealogy is not a privacy issue.


  1. Here in the UK anyone can purchase any other persons Birth, Marriage or Death certificate whenever they want at the same time the government egged on by paranoid people have closed census records for 100 years even though reviews have suggested 50 years would be a long enough closure period.
    In reality the whole concept of privacy for genealogical records is ridiculous.
    Proud parents announce the birth and marriage of their offspring to the world in newspapers, in addition here in England a marriage is not legal unless it is held in public so how are those events private.
    Deaths are published school graduations are published in newspapers without any thought of privacy.
    In addition the Information Commissioner (the person charged with policing privacy) has ruled that an individual has a right to publish genealogical information about living people on their website if they so wish.
    A welcome and common sense ruling seeing as the UK has no law of privacy.

    1. You are right, it is hard to have an end without a beginning.

  2. Isn't there a broad difference between "privacy" and "security", James? Protecting your data, accounts, etc., from malicious access is different from obscuring your identity, your history, and your statements/beliefs. Some would say that knowing such details could help those hackers, but most reputable banks do longer use place-of-birth and mothers-maiden-name for their security -- that choice is now in our hands.