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

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Alert! Is Your Private Information Online?

The genealogical community was recently bombarded by an email solicitation to join a "new" online family tree program. The request got a lot of coverage on Facebook and other social media outlets as well as national news coverage. The come-on for the advertisement was that the program already had your information, including a lot of information some genealogists might consider to be "private." I got some frantic inquiries regarding the "private information" on the website. Here is a screenshot of a news post by a TV station about the website.

This is a classic example of trying to close the barn door after the horses have already escaped. The "scary amount of personal address and family information" on the website is nothing more or less than what has been available for years as "public record" information in the United States. For example, here is another screenshot of a catalog listing from

Note that this collection, which includes 875,617,093 records is described as follows:
These records were generated from telephone directories, property tax assessments, credit applications, and other records available to the public.
The last part of the description refers to "other records available to the public." These records do, in fact, contain personal addresses and family information. Why would you believe that your home address was private? Did you check your mailbox recently? Have you never received one piece of "junk mail" in you life? Today, we got the mail and everything was junk mail except bills. We now seldom get any "real" mail. Almost all my communication comes through the internet.

Yes, you read the number of records in the Public Records collection on right. There really are more than 875 million records in that one collection and the same records are on the other major genealogy website. Oh, by the way, the same type of information is available on county assessor websites, phone directory websites, directory websites and many other types of websites on the internet. Most people would be astonished to see the amount of information that is freely available concerning every last person, man, woman, and child, in the United States.

If you were to write to any of these websites and "demand" that your information be removed, you would be bailing the ocean with a teaspoon. Every time you use a checking account, pay a bill, use a charge card, apply for a loan, buy anything anywhere, travel, use electricity or obtain any type of service including going into a homeless shelter, you are recorded and the information is then generally available. If you walk or drive around in a big city, you are likely being captured on a camcorder. You might also want to know that the United States does not have nearly the degree of surveillance of other countries such as England.

Privacy at a "public" level is a myth and as genealogists we directly benefit from the lack of privacy by having access to a number of very useful databases.

1 comment:

  1. I always find it interesting that genealogists, who thrive on finding public, government, religious, and/or private information on ancestors are some of the most panicked about their own public information. We exist. We should have records of our existence. It would be scarier to me to not be able to prove I existed and left a trail of records. It is all going to be ok.

    Melissa Finlay