Save the Trees: Genealogy and Privacy Online (Part One)

Posted by Aaron on

Online PrivacyOnline privacy. Articles have been written about whether or not it is appropriate to post pictures of your kids on Facebook. Every time there is a whiff of possible change to Facebook’s privacy settings, people bristle with alarm and you see the sharing of cautionary posts. Even if you are not a Facebook user, at some point you may have worried about the information about you that might be floating around on the internet at large. This information may have been posted to Facebook or otherwise shared online by a friend or family member without your consent or even your knowledge.

But… what about your family tree? In this two-part blog, we will look at how you can keep your information safe and protect the personal details of your family members.

Privacy is such a concern in genealogy that the National Genealogical Society published a “Standards for Sharing Information with Others” document in 2000. This document addresses several areas of concern regarding the sharing of genealogical information. We will briefly cover a couple of these today and a couple in Part Two of this blog in June. The two issues we will look at today are:

  1. Obtaining the consent of living persons
  2. Not knowingly sharing false information

Obviously, the deceased persons in the family tree you share online are not the primary concern. The concern is for your living relatives, and for other genealogists. In this age of copy-and-paste, any information, regardless of how sensitive or untrue it may be, can be shared with only a couple of clicks. This is why popular genealogical websites set certain sharing parameters and encourage users to share responsibly.

Obtaining the Consent of Living Persons 

Including some information about living relatives to make your family history more complete may seem an innocuous enough idea, but consider that according to Genealogy Online by Elizabeth Powell Crowe:

“… technology is not exclusively a tool for honest people… some scam artist might use it to hoodwink your grandmother into giving out the secrets that will open her bank account. It has happened. If your bank or financial institution still uses your mother’s maiden name for a password, change it.”

The book also points out that your living relatives have the same rights that you do, including being free of intrusions and not having their names or likenesses used without their consent. These points echo those made by the National Genealogical Society.

So, what can you do? Know that the publishing of or sharing of information is not limited to that which you add to your online family tree. The information you share via message boards, mailing lists, or e-mail should all be subject to the same privacy standards as the information you might share on any genealogy website.

Not Knowingly Sharing False Information

On the other side of obtaining consent is the issue of maintaining accuracy. I have been trying to come up with a reason why someone would knowingly share false genealogical information. It’s hard to imagine, but not impossible. We are all human, and many people could come up with a reason to share false information about someone else. This would of course be a serious situation, and one probably best resolved between the parties or with the help of an outside professional.

I think, though, that we can address another version of this problem which is making sure that you are doing your due diligence before putting information out there. This brings us back to our copy-and-paste society. When you put false information out there, it can end up being very hard to reel it back in.

What are some steps you can take to ensure that the information you share is accurate?

The Board for Certification of Genealogists  recommends employing the Genealogical Proof Standard. Part of this standard includes the citation of all sources, which we’ve already discussed. For the purposes of this blog, the other two steps I want to mention are, first, conducting reasonably exhaustive research and, second, resolving conflicts among evidence items. This means that you should be examining a range of high quality sources and then, if you come across conflicting information, you should reconcile that information before sharing. If you have doubts about the accuracy of what you are about to share, it may be best to hold off sharing it until you can do so with a higher level of certainty.

Further Resources

In addition to the books and resources I’ve cited above, you may wish to look at some other materials about these topics. Additional books that we have at the library which are specific to genealogy include Genealogy Online for Dummies by Matthew Helm and Social Networking for Genealogists by Drew Smith.  Preserving Your Family Photographs by Maureen A. Taylor also has chapters on protecting your photographs online. You might also want to explore, where you can find a lot of useful information about the topic of privacy as it relates to genealogy.

Stay Tuned

Watch for Part 2, coming June 20th, which will discuss other guidelines set forth by the National Genealogical Society.

~ Amanda, reference librarian, Warrenton central library

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