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 Long Have They Been in Business?
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.
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?
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
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
Whether you are posting information or photographs on your Web site,
be sure to follow these guidelines:
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.
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,
Include an e-mail address for individuals to contact you privately.
Use good judgment when selecting information and photographs for
the site. Private jokes or compromising images should not be placed
on a family site.
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:
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.
State your feelings about sharing information. Make sure the individual
using the data is not reproducing it in ways that intrude on your
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.