Privacy and Genealogy - Steven Coker
Subject: Privacy and Genealogy
From: Steven Coker
Date: March 25, 1999

by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG 
Previously published in RootsWeb Review, Vol. 2, No. 12, 24 March 1999. 
Reprinted with permission.

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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 means.

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 all.

Take a look at the policy posted at "Don't Mess with the Living, Texas"

     "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  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

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: 
and .

In the pursuit of our ancestors, let's not hurt ourselves or our living family
members. Think before you post or share data.

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Written by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, CG 

Previously published by RootsWeb Genealogical Data Cooperative, RootsWeb Review,
Vol. 2, No. 12, 24 March 1999. Please visit RootsWeb's main Web page at
.  ROOTSWEB REVIEW is available from: and . 
Reprinted with permission (see Vol. 2, No. 12, 24 March 1999).

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