28 January 2007

Comments on Genealogy & Privacy

Some comments on privacy I made today on a post at Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter...

In my county (and this is comparable to what I've found in many counties), you must be 18 to get a copy of your own birth certificate, or your parents can get a copy assuming they are the parents listed on the certificate. Otherwise, the county will only issue "genealogical" copies if they occurred over 75 years ago. I have not yet been able to get a copy of my own mother's birth certificate from another county, even though she is deceased, until 75 years have passed. But I respect that protection. Death records can be obtained if you are a relative or a person who can prove a financial interest. Again, if records are over 75 years old, they are openly available. Marriage certificates are public, but the applications are protected. That's not to say that some of the information on these documents can't be found elsewhere, but should it really be made too easy to find out everything about you? About your young children? I've been trying for years to get one genealogist to remove information about my minor children from his web site.

Procedures may be lax in some locales, but that is not an excuse to discount the value of the protective laws in place.

The Internet makes it too easy to find information about living people. Our laws and "commonly accepted practice" have not kept up with the technology. There used to be some measure of privacy afforded by obscurity. Identity theft and fraud are only two of many many reasons to respect the privacy of living individuals. As others pointed out, it is the increasing pervasiveness, commercialization, and lack of control of our personal information that many find objectionable. And this information is increasingly being used by others to make decisions about us that can affect employment, credit, reputation, insurability, etc. An excellent resource on these issues is the book The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age by Daniel J. Solove.

In the days of our ancestors, unless you were a prominent public figure, you would personally know most of the people who knew your intimate details.

I've never understood why some genealogists insist on publishing information on living people, without their knowledge and consent, particularly when there is little or no connection between the two people. I'm an avid genealogist and technologist myself, but we must remember that for most of us genealogy is a hobby, the rest of it is real life.