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
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, news groups, 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
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 70years . . ."
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 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
cyber thieves 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 to
reveal relationship by saying she is your mother or maternal grandmother. To learn more about
identity theft and other privacy issues visit:
Identity Theft and
Privacy Rights. In the pursuit of
our ancestors, let's not hurt ourselves or our living family members. Think before you post or
Written by Myra Vanderpool Gormley, email RWRfirstname.lastname@example.org 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.com