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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What is and What is Not Private for Genealogists

The question of privacy seems to arise frequently in the context of what is what is not private when putting genealogical data online particularly in public family trees. To start out, most if not all of the online family tree programs have provisions to hide information about living people. For example, the Family Tree program creates a "Private Space" for all living contributors. Anything created for a living person is hidden from public view. In addition, any individual added to the Family Tree without a death date or marking deceased will not appear or be visible to anyone besides the person who created or entered the individual.

Notwithstanding these safeguards for living people, many potential contributors are afraid to add even basic vital information about living people. In the case of the Family Tree, as I already indicated, none of this information about "living" people is visible to anyone except the main contributor. There is one exception where living people in photographs may become visible to the general public if a dead person in the photo is tagged.

At least in the United States, there is a substantial disconnect between what is considered private by individuals and what actually turns out to be private. The entire subject of "privacy" is controversial and very political. In the process of writing this post, the following news post appeared, "The House just voted to wipe away the FCC’s landmark Internet privacy protections." Because this post uses the word "privacy" you would tend to believe that it concerns what you consider to be "privacy." But in thinking this, you would be wrong. The issue really involves differing political opinions about the government regulation of internet service providers.

On any given day, there is probably an online news story that involves some issue about "privacy." The reality is that the degree of isolation people could maintain when they lived on farms and there were no methods of communication other than writing letters and the spoken word have long since disappeared in almost the entire world. Let me give an example. You live in a house or an apartment. Do you receive mail from the U.S. Post Office? Is your home address public or private? Have you ever received a birthday card or letter? If you work, does your office celebrate or acknowledge your birthday? Have you every obtained a driver's license in the United States? Did you have to fill in a form that asked for your date of birth? Have you ever gotten any medical treatment in the United States? When you got a vaccination or obtained some medicine, did you have to tell the provider your name and birth date? What makes you think either your physical home address or your birthdate are private information?

I will examine each of the three major types of vital records and indicate what is and what is not private.

Birth Information
Names, dates, and places are the basic building blocks of genealogical research. Contrary to common belief, information about vital records is entirely public in the United States. Since the early 1900s, birth registration has been universal in the United States. I routinely obtain the birth and death information about my ancestors. It is only slightly less complicated to find the birth information about anyone living today. For example, how many times have you seen birthday greetings on Facebook? It is just silly to think that birth information in the United States is private information. Many newspapers routinely publish birth information and people send out birth announcements to friends and relatives either my traditional mail or online. When a child goes to school in the United States, they will need a birth certificate to prove eligibility. There is nothing private about birth information.

Marriage Information
Marriage records are even less private than birth information. If you buy or sell any property in the United States you have to identify your spouse and usually, the spouse has to sign some sort of document. This is the case because marriage affects property interests. Do not assume that because a state or local agency will not release information about a birth or marriage to anyone on demand that the information that this has to do with privacy. The main reason is that the agency charges and fee for the information and they want to protect the revenue stream. Some types of official documents are restricted because they can be used for illegal purposes.

Death Information
There is even less "privacy" about a death in the United States. Have you ever attended a funeral and been given a funeral program. I happen to have dozens of these programs that I routinely use to post death information to my genealogy files. Obituaries are published in newspapers even in this age of online news. Cemeteries are certainly not private and headstones can be viewed by anyone who wishes to drive or walk to a cemetery.

These short illustrations are only the beginning. Are tax returns private information? We hear a lot of news about public figures being forced to disclose their tax returns. Does this make the returns private? No. You file your Federal tax return with the U.S. government. How private is that? Do you really know who can and who cannot see your tax return? I could go on and on, but the idea that the information gathered by genealogists is somehow private is ridiculous.

Here are some simple rules about what is and what is not private information.

1. If anything about you can be obtained by searching the internet or paying a fee to a government entity, that information is not private.

2. If you tell anyone about something that you consider to be "private" then that information is no longer private.

3. If you engage in any publicly available activity, then what you did or how you obtained access to that activity i.e. going to the doctor or buying something in a store, is not at all private.

4. Any information that can be obtained through legal action in the United States can not be considered to be private.

This list could also go on and on. Privacy is a bugaboo. People are unduly concerned about their privacy because they do not realize how little there is about their lives that is truly private.


  1. James, I might agree with you privately, but we are omitting some key points here: (1) the National Genealogical Society, in attempting to set ethical guidelines for the community is a bit different than the letter of the law. In the recommended guidelines, "require evidence of consent before assuming that living people are agreeable to further sharing or publication of information about themselves." This is only part of what is covered by the community guidelines: These guidelines are also observed by those who seek to become certified in that no information about living persons can be included in such a portfolio without written consent from the person. Finally, the Association of Professional Genealogists is a bit more vague, but also addresses treatment of living persons: "Treat information concerning living people with appropriate discretion." While the information may be publicly available about living persons, our community leadership has set a higher standard ethically to protect the profession and practice of genealogy that should not be overlooked, even by the novice.

    1. According to the National Genealogical Society Membership Fact Sheet ( in February 2017, they had more than 9,600 members. I might point out that's most recent statements indicates that they have more than 85 million members. I am not sure I could give the recommended guidelines of the NGS much weight in the issue of privacy. I would also note the NGS Privacy Policy ( which indicates that the NGS automatically collects information about its website visitors and uses browser cookies. The Privacy Policy does not even discuss the guidelines.