OXYMORON: PRIVACY AND THE INTERNET
by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG
Genealogists use RootsWeb and the incredible power of the Internet to learn more about
ancestors and to find far-flung cousins. However we are caught in an incongruous position
on privacy matters.
Everyone wants their privacy respected, but are you invading that of your relatives?
Technology enables us to share genealogical information easily and quickly via e-mail,
mailing lists, chat rooms, bulletin boards, newsgroups, GEDCOMs, CDs and Web sites. In our
eagerness to obtain and to share data we forget that our living family members have a
right to privacy. We also post personal details about ourselves that we would not put on
the local supermarket bulletin board.
Aunt Martha might reveal her real birth date and confess that she had a child out of
wedlock when she was 19. Sweet old Uncle Jim may tell you that he has been married and
divorced six times. However, you are invading their privacy if you publish this
information or if you share it with others via a GEDCOM or family group sheets.
Information on home pages, bulletin boards, and mailing lists is electronic publication.
It is OK to collect and compile information about your living relatives, but don't share
it (unless you have their permission, of course) with others -- in any format via any
During the preparation of a talk for my local genealogical society on this subject, I
searched hundreds of genealogy-related home pages. At one I found the names and details
about everyone in the family, including when and where they were all born, right down to a
one-month-old grandson, listing the hospital in which
he was born.
One researcher reports, "In just one file that I downloaded . . . I found more than
200 names of persons born within the last 70 years . . ."
Another notes, "I was shocked and dismayed to find that someone had copied my entire
GEDCOM and put it up on their Web site. While I have no objection to anyone using my dead
ancestors, this person had included the living as well . . ."
Now, I've heard from several genealogists who claim it does not matter what we put up on
our home pages or share on the Internet since "this information is all public
information, anyway." Another one argues that "unless and until they quit
putting births, deaths and marriages in the newspapers the basic relationships and names
are and will remain public info."
I have no quarrel about marriage and death records -- if they are really obtained from
public sources. However, I asked several correspondents to provide me with the source of
the birth information posted on their home pages, and guess what I learned? In every
instance the data were either supplied by a cousin or obtained from a GEDCOM that someone
had sent them. In other words, they had not found the information in a public source at
Take a look at the policy posted at "Don't Mess with the Living, Texas" <http://home.sprynet.com/~harrisfarm/warning.htm>:
|"It is the policy of the Texas GenWeb Project to protect the rights
and privacy of our living relatives. We strongly encourage all involved to do their best
not to place information on the Internet about anyone who is still living, unless
you have their express permission to do so."
Among the suggestions for ways to protect living family members are:
-- When requesting information (via e-mail, chat, queries, etc.) do not include personal
information on living persons.
-- When responding to requests for information, especially to someone you really do not
know, do not provide them with personal information about living persons. They could post
it on the Web or do who knows what else with it.
-- Before sharing GEDCOM files with others, expunge information on all living persons.
Programs such as GEDClean, GEDLiving, and GEDPrivy will do this for you.
-- If you have a genealogy Web site, remove information about all living persons. (Check
Cyndi's Genealogy Home Page Construction Kit <http://www.cyndislist.com/construc.htm>
for tips and links to the several GEDCOM utility programs that will exclude such data.)
British genealogists are using the "GEN100" logo to signify that their Web site
respects a cut-off date of 100 years, and to advise that information which is less than
100 years old will not be divulged. Many Americans use January 1920 as the cut-off point,
since that is the most recent federal census available to the public.
We should exercise good manners and respect the privacy of our families -- those generous
relatives who have shared information with us or who shared with a cousin of a cousin.
Additionally, there is another and growing problem -- identity theft. Why make it easy for
cyberthieves to steal your or a loved one's identity?
When you post public messages about your research, it is sufficient to say you are
researching a Cynthia Jones line. You don't have reveal relationship by saying she is your
mother or maternal grandmother. To learn more about identity theft and other privacy
issues visit: <http://www.identitytheft.org/>
In the pursuit of our ancestors, let's not hurt ourselves or our living family
members. Think before you post or share data.