February 1, 2008

Privacy matters?

There has long been a concern by many that published genealogies are a threat to privacy when data on living people (e.g., birth date and place, marriage date and place, etc.) are included.

In many on-line genealogies family researchers include their personal family information, right down to grandkids. They make no effort to hide information such as their birth and marriage dates and places. Even data about their sibling's families and their living parents are included. Others are more astute and omit any reference to living persons.

Researchers often include on-line their own home address and telephone number. Want to find out more about where they live? Plug the address into Google maps and receive directions to their home.

I try to be discrete when publishing genealogical information sent to me by others. I will not use any information when I am asked to withhold it. Still, I cannot help but wonder why someone would believe it is OK to send me their "family secrets," but not OK for those who might read about it in a published genealogy!?

In my opinion, a thorough dissertation on Aunt Jane's three affairs and six illegitimate children - all of whom are still living - should not be shared outside the family. Although Aunt Jane's personal affairs may be common knowledge in her family and, perhaps to some extent around her home town, it is not something that I would be comfortable writing about. To me that is a real privacy issue.

Why is it a concern that including "Aunt Jane's" name, birth date and place on a web page is a threat to her privacy? Chances are that the personal check she wrote to Macy's included her address, her birth date, and her drivers license number. If not, she will freely provide it upon request of the store clerk with little regard for who might see that information, or its proper use.

We happily publish the birth of our children in the local newspaper. We publish a lot of family detail in obituaries for our loved ones. Newspapers publish the names, ages and addresses of marriage license applicants. We then proudly publish photographs and detailed information about the families of the bride and groom on society pages. There we tell everyone where the couple went to school, where they are employed, and where they will reside after returning from the honeymoon.

After death, our social security numbers and other detailed information - through the Freedom of Information Act - are available. Even our tax records are available. They are more difficult to come by, but for a price almost any of our life records can be purchased or stolen, irrespective of where they are stored. Former Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger has shown this to be true.

Many families publish blogs that are open to anyone who wants to read them. They describe in detail their daily lives, and most often include photographs to prove it.

Families respond to publishers who want to print and sell county histories. They generally include everyone in the family, right down to the newborn. Sometimes they even include a secret or two!

Public records such as divorces and property transfers are available on a daily basis in most print and on-line newspapers. School graduation photographs are published that include not only the student's name but also the names of his/her parents. Sometimes siblings names are included.

Many counties around the country publish on-line indexes to all public records. Want to find out the details of someone's divorce? Just jot down the file index numbers and visit the courthouse. Too far from the courthouse? Find out what the costs are and send for the complete file.

For a few bucks you can find out where anyone lives, their telephone number, credit history and much more. Take a look at any of the more popular search engines like switchboard.com if you have doubts.

In my local Sunday paper there is a "featured family." They are presented in nearly full page photographs. Typically, they are standing outside their home. Sometimes however, they are pictured inside the home alongside a treasured antique, or something else of great value. The accompanying article not only reveals names and relationships, the photograph shows exactly what they look like, where they live and what they do for a living. Information such as this can directly lead anyone bent on compromising the privacy of these families to the source.

Once a young man wrote to me asking that I remove him from a genealogy that another family member had submitted. The reason given was that the he worked in a "sensitive position" with a law enforcement group. There was nothing in the genealogy that even hinted at his occupation. I removed his name, but was amused when I found a link at the bottom of his e-mail that led me to a web page containing his wedding photographs, as well as photos of many who had attended this young man's recent wedding! No matter to whom he wrote, chances are the link was automatically included in every e-mail he sent.

So, what do you think?

With more and more newspapers now publishing on-line where people around the world can read the details, do you believe that personal information is too easily available?

Should on-line family historians not include names, birth and marriage dates and places for living family members?

Has anyone in your family had their privacy compromised by information taken from a genealogical website, or other publically available website?

If you publish on-line, what is your practice?

Write to me at the above e-mail address.

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