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Privacy and the Family Home Page
by Maureen Taylor
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Protecting Your Family History in the Internet Age
The Internet's great advantages in sharing all types of information pose a particular challenge to genealogists. How do we share our information with each other (a crucial part of the hobby) while maintaining the privacy of our living relatives and ownership of our own research? Maureen Taylor shares some tips for walking the line.

What's the Fuss?

If you have been following the stories in newspapers and magazines regarding privacy and the Internet then you know that the Federal Trade Commission has asked Congress to pass legislation to protect consumers. They are asking for Web sites to post privacy statements, let you know how your data is being used, offer security to that material and provide you with access to your user profile.

You are probably wondering how that relates to genealogy. In fact there are two matters that concern family historians. First there are the larger issues that all users of the Internet, genealogists included, should be concerned about such as how companies use the information we supply them. The other is being careful to protect yourself from unscrupulous individuals mining our family information for identity theft or posting data without permission. Some privacy experts think the identity issue is not something to worry about. But, how would you feel if you found your family information and photographs posted on the Internet without your knowledge?

Before the Internet, genealogists shared family data by exchanging group sheets and publishing the information in book form, which meant that the data was not widely distributed. Genealogy in the Internet age is a different story. More and more people are posting data and researching online. For a start, you can search databases, family home pages and post queries.

Genealogists are basically a trusting group of individuals, but on the Internet you need to follow some basic precautions to make sure that your family information doesn't end up in the wrong hands. We teach our children to be cautious of strangers, yet somehow feel safe communicating anonymously on the Internet with individuals we don't know. Would you tell the next person you meet on the street details about your living family members? Yet many genealogists do that every day, by inviting the public to view their home pages.

Let's start with a reassurance. At this time, no case of identity fraud has been linked to genealogy content. The majority of the documented cases of identity theft are related to criminals gaining access through regular mail to credit cards and social security numbers. However, just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't. Genealogists need to exercise some common sense when it comes to sharing and posting information online. Anyone can obtain a driver's license if they have a birth certificate and all you need to obtain a birth certificate is a name and a birth date. Yes, some of this information is already available on the Internet, but why make it easy for someone by posting everything thieves need to know on your Web site.

Home Pages and Family Information

Let's suppose that you want to create a home page. What types of privacy issues should you be concerned with? There are two separate issues. First you need to research the company that will host the site and second you need to be concerned about content.

Before you post content in a family Web site find out the answers to the following questions.

Does the Company Have a Privacy Statement?
Companies that care about privacy provide consumers with a clear explanation of their policy statements. If you don't see a privacy statement on the Web site, ask the company to e-mail you their policy. If they don't have one, simply find another site.

Each privacy statement should contain the following information:

  • How do they use the information you supply?
    Before submitting a user profile to the company it is a good idea to find out what the company does with that data. Many companies use this material to produce features and market products directly to you. Find out if you can decline receiving this material.

  • Why do they need it?
    The information you supply when you register for service allows companies to learn more about their users and develop content.

  • Is the information resold?
    In some cases, your user profile is sold to other companies so that they can contact regarding related products. If you don't want your information to be shared find out if there is some way for you to be taken off their list.

How Long Have They Been in Business?
You want to know how long a company has been in business to see if they have earned customer respect in regard to privacy issues.

What about Cookies?
Many Web sites use cookies to give you access to certain areas of their sites or to learn general patterns of usage on their sites. In general, these are very safe, particularly when used by reputable companies. When perusing a privacy statement pay particular attention to how cookies are used on a site, and then decide whether or not you want to accept or reject use of cookies on that site. One company, Junkbusters, provides visitors to their site with helpful information on cookies.

Content of Your Home Page

Creating a family home page can be a great activity for adults and children to work on together. You can link genealogical information with current family events and photographs, but use caution when you decide what material you post and make sure that it is password protected so that only you can edit and delete what has been posted.

A growing number of genealogists believe that living individuals have a basic right to privacy. The Gen100 policy's slogan, "Protect Your Living Relatives — Don't Mess with the Living" is full of common sense. The creators of the Gen100 logo invite all similarly-minded individuals to use this icon idea on their Web sites.

Whether you are posting information or photographs on your Web site, be sure to follow these guidelines:

  1. When requesting material from family members, ask permission to use them online. As protection, put your request in writing and ask them to respond in similar fashion. You can outline in your note the specifics of your request such as usage and how long the material will be posted.

  2. Don't post information on living persons. If you need a reason, think about the number of times you have used your mother's maiden name for identification purposes. In particular, do not include full names, birthdates, birthplaces, addresses, occupations, degrees, phone numbers, or social security numbers. You can use a filtering program to remove data on living persons from your GEDCOM file such as GEDClean32, GEDLiving, or GEDPrivy.

  3. Include an e-mail address for individuals to contact you privately.

  4. Use good judgment when selecting information and photographs for the site. Private jokes or compromising images should not be placed on a family site.

  5. When selecting photographs for inclusion, choose images that lack identifying information such as names and occupations. Keep in mind that once an image is posted on the Internet it can be copied and used by others.

How Can You Protect Yourself from Others Posting Your Personal Data?

There are a few basic things you can do to safeguard your personal data:

  1. When sharing information, be sure to establish a relationship with the person. Identify what material they are looking for and find out why. An individual that willingly shares all their family information without restraint might also be willing to share what you send with someone else. Why do they need to know all your personal data if the individual they are researching lived two hundred years ago? Only provide them with what you feel is appropriate, not your entire file, including all current information.

  2. State your feelings about sharing information. Make sure the individual using the data is not reproducing it in ways that intrude on your privacy.

  3. Find out how the information is going to be used. You need to provide your permission before they publish in any form the material you sent. You should obtain the same from individuals that sent you data.

Think you're safe from misuse of your family information? Try searching for your name using a search engine such as Google.com. You might be surprised at what you find.


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