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Is There Such a Thing as Privacy in Genealogy?

Privacy affects genealogy in what we post on social network sites, what we write that is published in family history books, periodicals and websites and what we upload to family tree sharing sites. You have to decide what works best for you and your family but the following are some basic privacy guidelines to consider.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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These days everyone is concerned about their privacy. Not only are individuals concerned about their personal privacy as they post, surf, and download items on the Internet, but politicians are busy waging war against identity theft by passing bills aimed at making it either more difficult to access certain types of records or limiting the information that can be accessed on those records. All of this is done in the name of privacy rights and the fight against identity theft.

Genealogy is an interesting pursuit. In order to learn what we need to find out more about our ancestors, we need less privacy, in the form of open access to records. In some cases our access to records may be limited such as in the case of medical records or mental health records, no matter how old. This denial of access, limits our pursuit and what we can learn about those in our family.

While the discussion of limiting access to records is important, I want to focus on how we can respect those who are living and may not want certain aspects of their family history to be divulged as part of a genealogical research project.

In some cases living family members may not wish certain family secrets to be known, or information about themselves to be published. This can be for a variety of reasons, including emotions of shame, guilt, or embarrassment as well as concerns over identity theft.

Privacy affects genealogy in what we post on social network sites; what we write that is published in family history books; periodicals and websites and what we upload to family tree sharing sites. You have to decide what works best for you and your family, but the following are some basic privacy guidelines I try to adhere to as I research and share my genealogy with others. In general, I believe in doing no harm with the genealogy research I do. So if the information would embarrass or anger someone, I don't publish it. Angering the living will only make it more difficult for you to learn more about the dead.

Protecting Family Privacy

Do not list living people on family trees that you post or share with others. When sharing GEDCOMs only export information about deceased individuals. This is so important because once the information leaves your hands; you have no control over what another person will do with it. I had one instance where I shared a GEDCOM with someone who then posted it on a family tree site, showing the living and the deceased. I later had a cousin call me and ask if I knew my name, birth, and marriage date was on an online tree.

Cite Your Sources. What does this have to do with privacy? Everything. Recently, someone told me how she is listed on an online tree as being dead. She has contacted the person and asked to be removed from the tree and has received no response. The company who hosts the tree is unable to correct the error. This is just another example that genealogy without proof is simply hearsay. When genealogists do poor research the results may not just lead to thinking you're related to people that you are not, but also making false claims about people and infringing on their privacy.

When publishing family history books or websites, ask family members if they want to be listed. Some people may have concerns about their mothers or even themselves, children, or grandchildren being listed, whether they are dead or alive. Because of mothers' maiden names being used for bank account security this can be a touchy subject for some. It's okay if you disagree about who should be listed in your family history book, but honor others' wishes and do not include them if that is their choice.

Some stories make genealogy more interesting. But sometimes it's best to keep those secrets private. While it may be interesting to a genealogist that an ancestor was a victim of a crime or had a baby out of wedlock, living family members may not want that revealed. Be considerate of the feelings of others.

Ask yourself what purpose it serves to reveal recent (within the last 100 years) "family secrets", especially if there are still living children or grandchildren. Telling a good story should not be done at the risk of embarrassing the living.

Ensure family members that you will maintain confidentiality when requested. Family members may be more likely to tell you what they know if they are assured you won't be spilling all of the "family secrets." Genealogists have a reputation for coming around asking a lot of questions and then not sharing anything they have learned, or sharing too much of what they have learned. In one case, I was interviewing a relative who asked me to keep something a secret about an ancestor. The person she referred to had been dead for at least 20 years and the secret wasn't particularly scandalous, but her feelings were what was most important to me.

Protecting Privacy on the Net

Some things to consider when posting to social network sites (Twitter, Facebook, GenealogyWise and others) :

Don't reveal too much about yourself. Just because a social network site asks for information about where you live, what high school you went to, and when you were born doesn't mean you have to provide that information. Remember that information you post to a social network site may be visible by conducting a Google search on your name.

Decide what you are comfortable with and then add privacy settings to control who can see your information. Social network sites have privacy settings that allow you to control who sees what you post to the network. Typically, you can restrict this to everyone, friends only, or friends of your friends. The question to think about for you is whether you want what you post (text, images, videos) to be available to just your "friends" or your friend's friends. In one case for me, my cousin has over 600 "friends." Sharing genealogy may not be what I want to do with her 600 friends.

Be careful about what you write. Be careful what you write on your friend's wall or as comments to their postings. Remember, they will not be the only people who see it. Their friends will also see it. If you have something private to say use the personal message function available on all social network sites.

Use the Private Message function to send private messages to other members. This option is the best for sending information that you don't want made public. One time on Facebook, I saw a posting on a friend's wall where the person included her address and phone number. This may not be information you want your friend's 500 "friends" to see. I use the private message function on Facebook to ask questions about family history only to family members related to that side that I am researching.

Ask permission before you post photos of others. One of the great aspects of social network sites is the ability to post photographs of family and events. Before you post photos of living people you may want to ask their permission first. Some people may not wish to have photographs of themselves, their children or grandchildren on a social networking/sharing site. It's better to ask first or let people know your intention before you post photos.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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