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

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Genealogical Data: Private or Public?

One of the constant background issues of genealogy is the issue of public vs. private. For some reason, genealogists think that the information they obtain from "public" sources magically becomes private when the put it into "their family tree." In addition, the news media is constantly admonishing people to "protect their privacy" to avoid the nebulous issue of "identity theft." One example of the extremes being used to "protect your privacy" is the current action to replace every Medicare card in the United States and give everyone a new Medicare Number in order to avoid using the current numbers that are essentially the same as Social Security Numbers.

The basic question is this: how can a number that is issued by the United States Federal Government and is required to be used to obtain a variety of medical services private? Statistics on the number of people using Medicare in the United States vary considerably, one website,, puts the number enrolled in 2015 at 56 million. Meanwhile, your Social Security number will remain the same. Most medical-related entities will likely require both numbers, just like they do now.

This same analysis applies to a whole host of other "numbers" such as drivers' license numbers, telephone numbers, the address on your house or apartment, your car's VIN, your car's license number, and so forth and so forth.

What about family information? If you have ever enrolled in school or received medical care, you have been required to supply a contact person's address and/or phone number. Is this private or public? Do you know who lives next door to you? Have you ever looked at your county or state's real estate tax lists? If you own or are employed in a company, did you pay any taxes? Did you have to supply your Social Security Number to obtain employment or pay your taxes? Perhaps your business has an EIN (Employers Identification Number)? When was the last time you had to supply that number?

Yes, all this a mountain of additional information is public. Additional public information includes your bank account numbers, your club membership numbers, and about everything else you have or work with including your credit card numbers. Why would you think your credit card numbers were private when you give your credit card to a restaurant server for payment of your bill? Oh, you pay by check, do you? Well, your bank's routing number and your account number are printed on every check. Oh, but you are really private, you pay by cash only. Well, while you were standing there paying by cash, a video monitor in the store was recording the transaction.

What is the point? There is very little about our lives that is truly private. As genealogists, we often encounter "restricted" records. But those restrictions are not related to privacy, they are mostly related to entities that have some reason not to disclose the information, including making money from supplying the information.

There are some things that are still private but none of them have anything to do with the information we deal with as genealogists. If you found a birth record for your ancestor, why would you think that no one else could find the same record? Access to everything you research as a genealogist is shared with every other descendant of every one of your ancestors.

Notwithstanding these examples, there are still genealogists who think they own their family tree information. Dead people have no privacy. There are almost no laws protecting access to information about dead people except those, as I noted above, where some entity has a monetary or other reason to restrict access. If I want to obtain my parents' birth records, I will likely have to pay a fee to some state or county agency in the United States. But that does not make the information private and it does not give me ownership of the information.

Do you know which of the numbers I mention in this post should be recorded in a family history and which should not? Maybe that is part of the problem.

If you can go to an archive, a library, a historical society, or some other place in the world or search online and obtain information about your ancestors, so can I. That information is not private.

Let's move from issues of privacy that do not exist to issues of data security which are entirely different and really do have a lot to do with credit cards, bank accounts and other such numbers and institutions. But let's also remember that data security is not privacy.

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