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

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Genealogy: Ethics, Ownership, Work Product, Plagiarism, and Privacy, Part Five: Privacy

I heard a story today about a woman who refuses to get vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus because then the government would be able to track her movements. This probably comes from the false conspiracy theory that the vaccine contains a nano-chip tracking device. Some genealogists have the same kinds of conspiracy theories about having public online family trees. The silliest reinforcement for that type of misinformation comes from banks using a question about one of your grandparents as a security question. Just recently, the U.S. government changed Medicare numbers from a simple extension of a Social Security number to another randomly generated number. The change came with strict instructions about maintaining the privacy of this number. Those who sent out the new number and those who wrote the scary instructions about keeping the number quiet apparently had never used their Medicare card to get medical treatment. Every time you go to a doctor's office or hospital, the first thing you have to do is show them your Medicare card so they can make a copy for billing purposes. You might as well have the number permanently written on your forehead except then that would get into a really old conspiracy theory. 

As a long-time veteran trial attorney, I have a very realistic idea of what the word "privacy" means and what it doesn't mean. I still talk to people who are afraid to give out their home address because of privacy concerns but I can tell you right now, that more than one large, online genealogical database/family tree program can provide me with a list of every place a living person has lived in their lifetime. If you think your address is private, think about the last time you received junk mail to a former occupant of your house or apartment. I get regular mail letters addressed to members of my family who have not lived at my home for ten years or more. 

So, when we narrow down the topic of privacy and focus on what it means to genealogists, what do we come up with? First of all, dead people don't have any privacy. Also, you can't claim privacy on the part of another person. A legal action for invasion of privacy is a tort or personal injury claim. In the United States, an action for invasion of privacy is usually one of four main types of actions:

  • Appropriation of Name or Likeness
  • Intrusion Upon Seclusion
  • False Light
  • Public Disclosure of Private Facts

See "What Is Invasion of Privacy?"

Let's look at two common entry fields in an online family tree program. 


Your name stops being private the moment you are born and given a birth certificate or christened and entered into a church record. I suppose you could change your name as soon as you were born, but that would only create a court record of your change of name. What if you didn't tell anyone your name? Well, you could always try to live with an assumed name but absent engaging in counterfeiting and or fraud by obtaining everything from a driver's license to a Social Security Card, you would still have the same problems with the new identity. 

Date and place of birth

See my reference above to birth certificates. I was an intelligence analyst in the United States Army and I had my fingerprints taken dozens of times. Can I reasonably believe that changing my name or falsifying my birth information would prevent me from being identified? Think about this: as genealogists, part of our job is to find birth information. 

Of course, we deal with dead people so our interests include death and burial information. 

What about the identity of your parents? Hmm. DNA testing has pretty much put that issue out of any privacy claim. OK, so if I am worried about privacy, I shouldn't be doing any genealogy? We don't create information about people. We use records that are almost all publicly available to identify dead people. As a genealogist, except for my own immediate family, I don't really focus on living people much at all unless they are relatives and can provide me with information, oh, and family reunions and such. We do tell people, to make sure they interview all their older living relatives so they can make a start on identifying the dead ones. 

So what is there about genealogy that makes you think you should keep your family tree private? So your family situation could have been the plot of a murder mystery. How long does that fact remain private assuming no one was caught or went to prison or was tried in court or written about in the newspapers or was interviewed on TV or the radio or wrote a diary that was published as a best-seller or was the subject of a family story?

The simple solution to privacy as it applies to genealogy is don't publish anything you don't want the world to know. But don't harbor a false belief that what you find from historical records about your ancestors (who you share with other people) is in anyway actually private. 

See the previous parts of this series. 

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Part Four:

No comments:

Post a Comment