Privacy and Genealogy

 
While browsing this site you may stumble across the following phrase:

… descendants are privacy-protected.

We all have living people in our genealogical research.
 
The internet and the digitisation of records have revolutionised genealogy. Instead of visiting a records centre to manually transcribe records for your own personal research (which you safely stored at home) you can view digital images of original records, download them, and then upload your research to a variety of websites.
 
These days, with people living their lives online, it is easy to do a little sleuthing to piece together the genealogical details of a living person. And, while the information is readily available, does that mean we have the authority to place our human jigsaw puzzle online?
 
Short answer: no.
 
Not only is it ethically and morally wrong to collate information on a living person and publish it online without their explicit and informed consent, it may now be against the law.
 
In 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was implemented. The introduction of this regulation has compelled genealogy websites to make modifications which forcibly remove and prevent the publication of information on living people by amateur family historians who may lack knowledge of (or choose to wilfully ignore) genealogical ethics and privacy laws.

Does it pass the pub test?

Would you create a Facebook profile for a distant relation without their knowledge or consent? Would you add their date of birth, their spouse, their marriage date, and their children to it?
 
Of course you wouldn’t! So, why would you create a profile on a genealogy website?
 
Not convinced? Let’s look at this another way…

Prevention of identity theft

Family historians make wonderful researchers for the twenty-first century criminal. Who else would want to trawl through the family notices of digitised newspapers to obtain the birth dates of living people? Females? No problem! Your unscrupulous amateur genealogist who prides freedom of speech over privacy (unless, of course, it is their own) will have discovered the married name of that female, added her date of birth, her spouse, any children and compiled it into a neat single web page for the digital criminal to harvest.
 
Okay, so it’s not a good idea to publish information about living people. What else should I be thinking about?

If a family member shared information in the past, it does not then follow that they would wish that information to be published on the internet

You may have many letters, cards and interview notes obtained from elderly relatives who, decades ago and prior to the popularisation of the internet and digital genealogy, decided to unleash and bare all about the skeletons in the family closet. Your now deceased Aunt Bessie may have shared her candid recollections of the black sheep of the family during an informal telephone conversation but that does not mean that she would want those recollections to be disclosed to a global audience. And, you are not her only descendant. Aunt Bessie may have direct living descendants who may be distressed to discover the family dirty laundry is being aired to a global audience. It may also tarnish the reputation of Aunt Bessie who may have been the agony Aunt of the family and who may have been prided on her capacity to keep secrets.
 
In an age of ‘too much information’ it is easy to forget that the past was a secret-keeping different place.

Information published on one website should not automatically be reproduced

This also applies to family notices published in newspapers. Eighty years ago, if you placed a family notice in your local newspaper it would have only been read by the local community. Family notices were often considered something that you did and there may have been considerable societal pressure to place one. Think about it as attending a funeral or, using this example, refusing to attend a funeral.
 
With the digitisation of newspapers these notices can now be read by millions of people and they can contain information about living people including their dates and places of birth and the maiden name of their mother. Does this information sound familiar? Yes, it’s information that has been, in the past, used by financial institutions and other government organisations to confirm identity.

When in doubt, don’t

Always err on the side of caution. Once information is published on the internet it is difficult, if not impossible, to erase. Perhaps it is best to leave the storytelling of the twentieth century to the genealogists of the future. We have more than enough stories to tell if we focus on the nineteenth century and beyond.

Further reading on ethics and genealogy

Society of Australian Genealogists Code of Ethics
National Genealogical Society Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others
Association of Professional Genealogists Code of Ethics and Professional Practices
Australasian Association of Genealogists and Record Agents Code of Ethics
Family Tree Magazine Genealogist’s Guide to Protecting Online Privacy