Privacy & Online Family Trees
Recently participants in an online genealogy forum discussed privacy and the family trees displayed on Ancestry.com. The subject was initiated by a professional genealogist who was working on her own family tree on that site but had not yet designated it as "Private."
One of her family members was a victim in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last year. In the course of entering data she was contacted by this person's grandfather who wanted information about his mother and father's families to share with a curious grandson.
At the age of 70 the grandfather had learned the identity of his biological father. His son, the genealogist's uncle, had no knowledge of the circumstances of his father's birth. The genealogist found a family tree on Ancestry with the man's parents listed as married, when in fact they had never been married. The tree was placed by a man who was not a family member who emphasized there was a child born out of wedlock.
The genealogist found it disturbing that a non-family member was researching the family of a shooting victim. This man replied he was memorializing them for the family and it was none of her business. She did not reveal she was a first cousin or that neither the person he named as the father or his family ever knew of the relationship.
She then made her Ancestry tree "Private" so the offensive man could no longer access it. When the man became abusive, she reported him to Ancestry and he was blocked from further communication with her. Now she wants to know how he can be made to correct the erroneous information on his public tree, information damaging to her family members.
One person replying to her query reminded her that, ". . . research on someone else's family—even poor-quality research on a family containing disaster victims—does not constitute harassment in and of itself. . . . I wouldn't care to guarantee the 'permanent' privacy of anything on the internet. The only way to keep a secret is to never tell anyone."
Another reply said, "Your experience confirms why I will not put any information online. Once it is out there, there is now way of wiping the record clean." Then a professional genealogist responded, "Many of us are keepers of family secretes. I too have a number. You really have to be selective in what you share and with whom you share the information. I have a couple that will probably not be revealed until after I die, unless the people involved indicate some knowledge of what I know."
This was an important lesson learned the hard way. Once information has been broadcast on the Internet it is public knowledge. And once public there is no way to control the spread of the information to the four corners of the earth from here to eternity.
Repeat after me, I will not post privileged family facts on the Internet. We have no control over what anyone, family member or not, does with information after we have shared it. To protect yourself, if in the course of researching your family, you find illegitimacy, murder, incest, insanity or any other potentially damaging behavior occurred, keep it a secret until anyone who will be adversely affected by the knowledge is deceased.
We all want to be accurate, but out of respect for other members of our family, there are times when we should not divulge every last detail we dig up. Today we are so accustomed to posting our personal information on sites like Facebook, we don't always consider the ramifications of that posting to others.
Think before you hit that carriage return and do irretrievable damage to an unsuspecting family member.
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31 October 2013