Privacy Issues for Family Historians

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This article is a guest post by Dick Eastman, one of the most recognized names in the genealogy world. A pioneer geneablogger, he uses technology to improve your family history experience.

Genealogists often face conflicting requirements. We want to publish our own family information online in hopes that others will see it and recognize connections to their own family. Those other genealogists then can contact us, and we can collaborate to expand the known family trees of each of us. The problem is that today’s news is full of alarming articles about identity theft, fraud, and similar illegal acts. While some of the news articles describe real threats, others are published as “scare tactics” that magnify smaller issues to sound as if there are imminent dangers for all of us. Alarmist articles often strike unnecessary fear into the hearts of those who do not understand the difference between major and minor threats.

Fears of identity theft from public genealogical information often are irrational. Identity thieves obtain personal information about living people and rarely, if ever, get that information from ancestral data published online. The most common way thieves lift your personal information is by stealing your wallet, not from a website. (Reference: The Most Common Causes of Identity Theft and How to Protect Yourself.)

Another factor contributing to the fear of publishing genealogy information online is a misunderstanding of the various laws involved. For instance, many people believe there are strict privacy laws concerning access to genealogy information; however, there are very few such laws in the English-speaking countries of North America and Australasia. There are, however, various guidelines and occasional local laws concerning specific pieces of information. These should not be mistaken for wide-ranging restrictions enforced by national governments. European countries generally have stricter laws, but because one country considers something to be private does not mean that it must stay private everywhere else. In other words, no laws can protect a person’s privacy universally.

First, dead people do not have a right of privacy. Almost all laws dealing with privacy are limited to living people. Information about deceased individuals generally is not restricted by legislation. Likewise, heirs have no right to claim retroactive privacy for their ancestors.

In the U.S. and Canada, there is no restriction on publishing dates and places of birth, marriage, and similar facts online. Such facts are considered to be public domain, not private. Publishing such information is not an invasion of privacy in North America nor in most other English-speaking countries. However, European countries have a number of such restrictions.

Another interesting twist is the publishing of information obtained from death certificates. The certificate only serves as legal proof that someone has died and provides the supporting facts of death. Such facts typically include the date, time, and place of death and may state a cause of death. These are legal facts, certified to be correct.

Other information often found on death certificates includes the name of a spouse, parents, or children. A birth date and place may also be included. However, those supplemental facts are not considered to be legally proven as the information was provided from secondary sources and was never verified as being correct.

Privacy may be expected when dealing with offensive or objectionable facts. However, even those laws and their interpretation are changing rapidly. Only a few years ago, publishing a hint about someone’s homosexuality could be cause for a lawsuit as an invasion of privacy. It is difficult to imagine such actions today. Thanks to Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, even transgender actions are no longer considered to be private information. Publishing such information may be offensive to some of your relatives but will not result in legal actions. Of course, rules of “good conduct” go far beyond the minimum legal requirements.

Another interesting note is that privacy laws treat private citizens and public figures differently. The average citizen may expect some privacy concerning his or her choice of associates, membership in clubs and organizations, or even income. However, politicians, movie stars, sports personalities, and similar public figures do not enjoy the same levels of privacy.

NOTE: This expectation of privacy is not universal. Sweden, Norway, and Finland publish all income tax returns of all citizens every year, and the citizens don’t seem to mind. Anyone in those countries can go online to find the income of neighbors, friends, relatives, or co-workers. By contrast, U.S. law prohibits releasing anybody’s tax information.

These differences in national laws create a dilemma for those planning to publish information on the World Wide Web. Which laws apply to a genealogist in Canada who places information on a website hosted on servers in the U.S. with backup servers in Singapore, all providing information being read by a distant cousin in Australia? In short, there are no quick and easy answers to such questions.

Many of the online web services used by genealogists (MyHeritage, FamilySearch, and others) have guidelines that are more restrictive than the laws of any one nation. Such services usually do not allow for publishing the names and other personal information of living people, even though the laws in many countries do allow publishing such information.

In short, genealogists shouldn’t worry much about privacy laws but perhaps should be guided by common sense and respect for their families’ preferences. Just because Caitlyn Jenner was open about her sex change operation doesn’t mean that you should be equally open about a similar operation by your cousin. The prudent genealogist who hopes to obtain more family information from relatives in the future does not alienate them by sharing information that they prefer to be kept private. Legal or not, a genealogist should always respect the rights and desires of others.

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  • Kathleen


    September 7, 2015

    Thank you for this thought guidance!

  • Liv Marit Haakenstad


    September 7, 2015

    We could see tax lists in Norway, but the person you have searched for will also get a message that someone checked them!

  • Xenia


    September 8, 2015

    Canada is a lot different. We have privacy legislation https://www.priv.gc.ca/resource/fs-fi/02_05_d_15_e.asp
    When taking classes in the U.S. I was asked for my SIN (social security number) and I could refuse to give it just like I can refuse to give it in Canada unless required for work or tax purposes. Also there are laws for the number of years after which vital documents can be released but no such law exists in U.S. We do have a Freedom of Information Act but there are still checks and balances on information that can be released. For instance Alberta does not give cause of death. It comes blacked out on the copy of the record. Of course, obituaries online or in newspapers can reveal all information the family allows to be made public. We still are quite different than the U.S.

  • Colin Irwin


    September 8, 2015

    All of this is dependant upon the honesty and fabric of our different societies. I agree, there is no more privacy in the modern age. In N.S.W. Australia you cannot get birth records before 100 years, marriage 50 years and death 30 years. However, if you look at Cemetery records and Newspaper archives you can get a whole lot of this information regardless of time lapse.

  • STW


    September 8, 2015

    HIPPA laws add another wrinkle. I’ve a grand-aunt who was committed to the North Texas Hospital for Women sometime before 1930. I know this from census records where she’s listed as a patient. I contacted them looking for a death date and, citing HIPPA requirements they refused any information including verification that she had even been there. This, as I later learned, for a woman who died in 1938. Similarly they refuse permission for anyone to transcribe the headstones in their cemetery.

  • Gail Petrov


    September 8, 2015

    Very good article. Most local family history books that I have read, are done with consent of all family members who know about the publications. Have had a great uncle tell me that he wants his life private, yet his children have no problem sharing information with me, knowing that if they or their own children become interested, I am willing to share what I have researched. My family, cousins, etc. know of my interest in family history, and I have yet to receive a telephone call or email, telling me to “leave them out of the family tree”.
    Do enjoy your articles.
    Gail, Canada

  • Barbara Whipps James


    September 8, 2015

    i made mine private because of people taking the pictures and identifying them improperly , my mother turned into my aunt ,then you have those that take and do not contribute and boast about what they found,if they would do research think of how much further your tree would be,yes i would love to share mine for more hints to my tree but if they do it all wrong to what they want it is a farce and not real.so i went private

  • Carleton Rees


    September 8, 2015

    Really interesting
    The Common Denominator seems to be the means that laws in all countries apply to some and not to others and will be determined by the interpretations of those who have power to block or unblock information whether accurate or inaccurate.

  • Joyce Gillam nee Hampson


    September 9, 2015

    Having just come on to this I was quite surprised as I had not given any thought to what is being discussed. The one thing I have found doing My Heritage is that no matter how much information (which I have) I still cannot get my Husbands Military records, comes up as if he did not exist. I think that what happened was that his records got lost at the time he was demobbed but turned up 20 years later. Tried so many times but no luck.

  • Jim Lawson


    September 9, 2015

    An interesting and informative article. What to do with relatives who refuse to share the basic details (b,m,d, children, etc) of their lives fearing the scare tactics of invasion of privacy”?

  • Maris


    September 9, 2015

    Whether something is legal or not is not always the issue. Personally I keep my tree private because I have had distant relatives “lifting whole sections that did not apply to their family line at all but were in-laws of in-laws, including photos of recently deceased parents. This might have been legal, but in extremely bad taste as a recently deceased person is someone’s mother or father and photos of them may well be sensitive because they are a favourite photo. On the other hand I think it is fine to take dates and [usually] occupations and that sort of thing that could be obtained from other sources with a bit more effort. I think personal stories are totally off limits for at least twenty or thirty years after death.

  • Kathy


    September 9, 2015

    I was adopted as an infant and managed after the age of 60 to trace my birth family. My mother was dead by this time but I found a couple of siblings. Despite my asking them no to and also despite fact that my father was not on my birth certificate and seemingly unknown one of my nephews took it on himself to add me to his family tree with whom he thought to be my possible father. Publishing details or simply the existence of adopted children can cause a lot of disruption and emotional upset if not all family members are aware and ‘speculation’ on parentage should never be published as gospel. Always ask permission and be circumspect when dealing with family secrets!

  • fran


    September 9, 2015

    I had an adopted son,s name appear on my information who put it there I do not know .I have always been open with my family so wasn,t a problem but could have been if I had kept it secret.

  • Dick Eastman


    September 9, 2015

    —> Always ask permission and be circumspect when dealing with family secrets!

    That is some of the best advice ever. Let’s all make sure we “spread the word” about that. Thanks. (signed) Dick Eastman

  • Carol


    September 9, 2015

    Great article with lots of good info and advice. a keeper for reference.

  • Dick Eastman


    September 9, 2015

    —> “My family, cousins, etc. know of my interest in family history, and I have yet to receive a telephone call or email, telling me to “leave them out of the family tree”.

    I have had the same experience. Everyone seems interested and I have had zero complaints, so far. Yet all it takes is one complaint to make things difficult. I also am aware of a couple of family secrets about children born out of wedlock and things like that. Those were scandalous items at the time even if they are non-issues today. I don’t publish those facts because I am aware that not everyone wants to publicize the fact that “grannie was born illegitimate) even if the fact happened 100+ years ago. It strikes me that being sensitive to other people’s feelings is simply common sense.

    – Dick Eastman

  • John Worcester


    September 9, 2015

    Dick – good article. My comment is on a different tack: I’m descendedfrom a Richard Eastman !! – in Bideford, Devon, UK.

  • Theodore


    September 9, 2015

    Thank you for your excellent review of concerns and rules. Phew. I’m glad death certificates are public and American tax returns are private.

  • Bruce


    September 9, 2015

    While I don’t disagree with making information public, my problem is with the folks that grab any tidbit,right or wrong, and build their data bases with so many errors that eventually they are treated as fact….since they appear in several trees. We should be encouraging publication only of verified and verifiable data. An accurate tree of 100 names is much better than one of 2000 that is full of errors.

  • Lynne


    September 10, 2015

    My main concern with other people’s information is that some people are not good spellers, or transpose characters when typing/recording. I am too much of a perfectionist to blindly include others’ information in my own family tree!

  • Kenneth Payet


    September 10, 2015

    There is no substitute for thorough research. In my case Church records were a valuable source of family history. I was able to trace direct family going back to 1640’s in France. Since my latest family came from several Indian Ocean Islands Reunion, Mauritius, Seychelles, all once French Colonies, the existence of accessible records is quite surprising I am not too concerned that at least 6 other family trees have included my researched records in there family tree.

  • Toot44


    September 10, 2015

    Xenia:: There may not be universal law in the U.S. as to after how many years vital records may be released, but individual states such as Pennsylvania do have laws legislating the time frame when those records may be released.

    STW:: The Federal HIPAA Law regarding medical records may NOT be released for deceased persons, except as required for medical purposes (i.e. medical examiner, criminal actions, etc.) and only to authorized persons. As for cemetery records, there are no U.S. universal laws regulating cemeteries; however, the owners of the cemetery (i.e. corporations, churches, etc.) may make their own rules as to whether they give out information about individual interments, allow photo’s taken of Headstones, allow transcriptions of the entire cemetery or Headstones, etc.

    I keep my Family Tree private because I do not want unsourced or undocumented information to be “copied” and perpetuated by those who troll for information without doing their own research. I attempt to source/cite all information in my tree. I see so many tree’s that I can clearly see were just copied and bad information is being spread without caution.

    Thank you Dick Eastman for this informative article. Appreciate your knowledge and time.

  • Marianne Bick-Schwab


    September 10, 2015

    Thank you Dick Eastman for this very interesting and informative article.

    At the start of my family research I used several genealogy websites to increase my chances of making contacts. Slowly, painstakingly and by careful cross-matching I have been able to built up my family tree over the last 10 years, going as far back in time as 1495 on my husband’s side of the family. I achieved this mainly thanks to the contacts made via GenesReunited. This site informs the ‘tree-holder’ when there is a “hot match” with somebody who has the same named person in their tree and then it’s up to the individual to contact the hot match. Only then do you give access to your tree. I also had my tree on Ancestry, where the rules are different as once you make your tree public, that’s just what it becomes and anybody can copy details irrespective whether they are linked to the tree holder or not. This got me really irate when I discovered that somebody not remotely connected to my ancestral home had copied my Schwab family crest – which is unique to the town in Switzerland from which I originate. So I have now deleted all photos and other source documents from Ancestry website.

    As you so rightly point out, genealogy research into archives in English speaking countries is relatively easy and much of the information is accessible to the public. In contrast, Swiss genealogy research is extremely hard and one has to physically visit the local county archives. There is no central registry for swiss birth, marriage/divorce, death records and going by what I have just recently learned from one professional genealogist this is not going to change any time soon. Yes the Mormons did a great job in the 1950/60 in micro-filming some parish records, HOWEVER, the main problem with this is that the ancient german script being very hard to read it has not been deciphered and transcribed correctly in some cases. The result being that localities were misspelled and is it very difficult to get Ancestry to correct misspelled localities. For instance Siselen and Erlach in canton Bern have systematically been written as Seislen and Arloch on Ancestry with regards to the Schwab family originating from that region.

    I strongly feel that Genealogy is an exact science by which I mean that all data published by individuals and genealogy societies sites must be absolutely correct. Just an example, my husband’s family originates from the area of in and around of the city of Gloucester in the county of Gloucestershire in England. It is our habit in England to abbreviate Gloucestershire to Glos. Initially when entering localities on the Ancestry site I did type in for instance: Churchdown, Glos. England. Then one day, checking on one person in my tree I discovered that the website’s locality finder had my ancestor has having died in Churchdown, Glos, Calvados, France (which is a legitimate locality). It had been my mistake for not typing out the county properly and I was able to change all the affected people in my tree. But I noticed not so long ago, that having accessed my tree and copied data some people had the same mistake in their tree e.g. Glos, Calvados, France instead of Gloucestershire, England. How many have now carried on this mistake I have no idea.

    Marianne Bick-Schwab, London, UK

  • Jennifer


    September 10, 2015

    Jennifer

    Not all death certificates are truthful unfortunately, as i discovered to my cost re my grandmother’s who died in 1953.

  • Jan


    September 10, 2015

    I allowed some cousins access to several boxes of family photos. They copied over twenty. But then I discovered one from the box, of an old woman, on a website, being touted as a great great grandmother. Even my mother, original owner of the box, had said ” I don’t know who that is” and she had been raised with that gggrand. People have an emotional need to fill in spaces on their sites and are not always scrupulous, but will have a guess. Not good research. (Of course, it constantly amazes me that our ancestors couldn’t pencil in the person’s name on so many photos.)

  • Moureen


    September 10, 2015

    Thought provoking for sure. I had no idea anyone would want information that was just wrong. Since in Canada you can’t get info on “living” people, it is hard to continue one’s tree without having someone to ask or documented ID. So being able to get
    some info from another’s Family Tree is invaluable.

  • Carolyn Cragun


    September 10, 2015

    I am interested in how sources and documentation should be entered
    In my Heritage Tree.

  • Dorothy M. S – J ~


    September 10, 2015

    More than very helpful article Mr. Eastman! To all others that replied here, I too, appreciate your vital information in all of your replies.

  • Len Barty


    September 11, 2015

    I do not put my grandchildren on internet family trees. It is not my right. Internet Genealogy to me, is the quest for our ancestors and connections.

  • Jo Laynne Boies née Hill


    September 11, 2015

    My mother was an Eastman and I have traced her forebears back to an Eastman who came from France in the 1700’s. They settled in what was then the Louisiana Territory. They came to Texas sometime in the 1800’s. I had to retire earlier than I would have liked due to a back condition and can’t sit longer than 5-10 minutes at a time so have given up on doing much more. I was very interested when I saw your name and wondered if we are distantly related. Thank you for your informed article. JLB

  • Muriel


    September 13, 2015

    I can’t see how you can have a tree with all names called private. Just don’t put it out there for everyone to see if you are that protective of your family. I willingly give information to people’s trees and happy to share any information with other trees, and have done so quite often and will continue to do so. The worst thing is when you look up a person in year 1600 and find that another tree has them as private.

  • Diane Goodboe


    September 13, 2015

    Thanks for this really interesting topic and information. I keep my tree public because anyone who blindly copies out of laziness should be easy to spot by anyone doing serious research. For me the advantages of public access have far outweighed the annoyance of lazy or unscrupulous people who use my info in the wrong ways.

    As to privacy, I avoid posting anything on living people. I’ve told everyone if they’re interested in family history they should write their own – I only do ancestors. That said, one cousin was stunned when I showed her newspaper articles about her mother’s long-dead father, a very well respected member of his church and community, having been convicted of embezzlement at age 23 and sent to a men’s reformatory for two years back around 1919. Her mother was this man’s only child and had been raised with no knowledge of her father’s crime.

    My cousin and I decided not to post that part of his life online, though every living relative with an interest in that branch of the family has the information.

    As an additional note on privacy, I was even able to pull a copy of his prison file from the state archives and provided copies to my cousin and her mother. This was in MN so I’m not sure if that’s standard in all states.

    For what it’s worth, prison files turn out to be interesting in much the same way as old pension files in that they list relatives, physical condition at time of intake, etc. Since all correspondence to a prisoner was kept and dates made of all correspondence a prisoner sent, I was able to see how often and which relatives kept in touch with him. I even found a letter written by my own grandfather, since the embezzler was his kid brother.

  • Esther


    September 16, 2015

    Hi Carolyn,

    Please see this blog post about sources and documentation: http://blog.myheritage.com/2015/06/sources-where-did-i-find-that/

    Esther / MyHeritage Team

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    December 16, 2016

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