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Privacy on the Internet
Effect on Genealogy

The Permanence of Your Decision
Eastman Article  re Stolen Identity Issue
Other Privacy Considerations
Links to Related Pages
Privacy Software
The Permanence of Your Decision
When you are considering the passing of genealogy data on to another person in the form of a Gedcom, or posting of family information on the internet, consider the permanence of your decision. One thing is a certainty: the electronic world, especially the internet, is going to get bigger and more sophisticated in the years to come, thieves and other ne'er do wells will be getting smarter, and the repurcussions of the disclosure of private information could extend into areas that we now can't even dream of.

Once you have displayed your information on a web page, that information can be downloaded, or merely transcribed, by others into their genealogy data bases. Those folks, in turn, can furnish their information to others, put up their own data base, submit their date to gedcom inventories, such as at ancestry.com or at America On-Line, and you would never know how your information is being dessiminated. Multiply that by ten years of availability and you can see how the decision you make is irrevocable. Once you've made it, your information is in the world of transferable information, and simply taking down your page will have no effect on the fact that your information may be passed along by others. (Although removing that information today will at least serve to start to minimize future availability.)

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Eastman Genealogy Newsletter Article - Stolen Identity Issue
The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 1998 by Richard W. Eastman and Ancestry, Inc. I might add the same issues should be considered in the passing of genealogy data to others in the form of a gedcom. This article is re-published here with the permission of the author.
" A recent issue of U.S. News and World report had an article written by Margaret Mannix that makes for provocative reading. Ms.Mannix writes:

    Does your family have a home page on the Internet? If so, you
    might want to reconsider how much personal information you
    post online. Con artists who steal others' identities, get
    credit in their names, then leave innocent people with a
    mountain of debt to fight and ruined credit to clean up are
    discovering the charms of the Net.

She also writes "thousands of netizens are unknowingly making it easier for thieves to steal their identities by posting individual home pages, family genealogies, and risumis." One item that she mentions is the fact that many credit card companies protect the privacy of their customers by using the mother's maiden name as a password. You can quickly see how posting one's genealogy on the Web helps a con artist bypass that security.

If you have an interest in this topic, you may want to read the full article. It is available online (see links below).

To be blunt, I think Ms. Mannix' article overstates the "danger" and is a bit of a sensationalist article written for the popular press. However, the "dangers" she describes should not be dismissed too quickly. Credit card thieves and other rip-off artists were successfully obtaining the personal information of unsuspecting victims long before the invention of the World Wide Web. But why make it even easier for them? Posting personal information about yourself or your living relatives invites problems.

I will offer another viewpoint of genealogy home pages. The ability to search on the Web for a surname or even a full name of an ancestor has revolutionized genealogy research. You and I can now quickly and easily find researchers who have already done research and probably made discoveries that we wish to make. This often reduces wasted time and effort. I would never suggest that we go back to the pre-Web "dark ages" of five or ten years ago when genealogists labored in isolation.

One thing that really disturbs me is to see personal information about individuals who are probably still alive today. The article by Margaret Mannix describes some pitfalls, but I suspect there are even more problems than what she described. Did the person who publishes the information have permission from every living person so identified? If not, the owner of the home page may encounter legal problems. An angry relative might even sue him or her. In fact, if someone's credit information is illegally misused because a distant relative negligently made personal information available to a con artist, isn't there a legal responsibility of the person who published that information? Whether that lawsuit would ever be successful in the courts is anybody's guess. Even if there is no lawsuit, isn't there a moral issue involved? Many people do not want their names, much less their birthdates and relatives, listed for everyone to see on the World Wide Web.

I believe there is a very simple solution to the privacy issues as well as the possibility of credit card fraud: don't publish any information on the World Wide Web about any living individual unless you have permission in writing from that person. Period.

Publishing information about someone who lived 100 years ago or 300 years ago is a service to other genealogists and may help you wrap up a few "loose ends" here and there. But in 99.999% of the cases I can think of, publishing personal information about a 50-year-old never results in uncovering new ancestors. I will concede that there are a few exceptions, especially in adoption situations and when there are long-lost relatives. But I would also suggest that the risk of publishing personal information about living individuals outweighs the advantages.

So how do you make a determination if a particular person is alive or not? Simple. Unless you have personal knowledge otherwise, always assume that any person born within the past 100 years is still living. Some people might argue that we should use the 72-year rule in the same manner as the U.S. National Archives. Butthat number is based upon averages, and 50% of the time it is wrong. I suspect that a con artist can rip off a 75-year-old at least as easily as a 25-year-old. Using a number of 100 years seems to make better sense to make sure we do the right thing for everyone.

What happens if you accidentally include information about a 101-year-old who is still living? My experience indicates that most people over the age of 100 do not mind a bit of publicity about their longevity.

Most of the better genealogy programs that automatically generate personal web pages in HTML format also have an option to omit information about living people or people born after a certain date. Use that filter. If your genealogy program doesn't have that option, ask the producers of that program why it is missing. Or upgrade to a better program.

After all, you are solely responsible for the information in your Web pages."

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Issues Other than the Stolen Identity Issue
Besides the rip-off considerations, other reasons for privacy of living people's genealogy include:
Desire for privacy re adoption / step-children issues. 

Ex in-laws included in trees that don't want to be there, or are not even aware they are included when they haven't had anything to do with the family for twenty years (or the reporting family doesn't want them there). 

Early/previous marriages not wanted to be "advertised." 

Inappropriate use of this information by spiteful ex-spouses, neighbors, competitors at work, employers, who-knows-who. The web is, after all, open to anyone and everyone. 

Vanity reasons for keeping age private.

Another thought is that vital statistics and genealogy information about a living person belongs to them. It does not "belong" to a genealogist simply by possessing it.

Affects Gedcom Transfers Also. I might add the issue of privacy affects not only information posted on one's web page, but also in passing information to others in the form of Gedcoms or other data transfers. I have seen time and again where folks couldn't figure out how a source got information that was "only" in their file. It got there from someone else the person had given a gedcom to. Remember, once you have given a gedcom to someone, you have lost complete control over that data. If someone in your family is going to "inherit" your genealogy work, be sure to apprise them of this issue and the ramifications of release of genealogy of living people to others.  

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Related Links

On-Line Privacy from PC World On-line

Texas GenWeb Privacy Suggestions Return To Top of this page

Privacy Software
Gedlivng gives a great deal of flexibility in dealing with privacy concerns, both in terms of gedcoms to others or on to web pages. It allows complete deletion of living people, leave names and removes birth and marriage data, substitute given names with initials, round the date to the year only. These options can be used in combination, and in layers. ie combine initials with no dates; one set of criteria for 1940-today, and another criteria for 1900-1940 births, etc.

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