Privacy and the Genealogist


There’s some pretty big data privacy issues hitting the news lately – with some of the largest organisations seemingly taking a lacklustre approach towards the importance of security of individual’s private information.

Private door beside tree

Privacy and the family tree. Photo: mendhak via CreativeCommons.

How does data privacy affect genealogy?

We’ve all got our data backed up, right? (right?) and that’s sitting somewhere, perhaps online so that we can easily access it from an account like Evernote, Dropbox, or Google Drive?

At worst, you’ve not yet backed it up, but you’re just about to (PS: here’s a great article from Caroline Pointer on ‘Cloud’ storage for genealogy).

What’s in that data?

I’m guessing that you’ve got names, dates, and locations for a wide range of people through the centuries, but probably a few photographs, maybe some contact details for modern relatives/researchers, and maybe some copies of emails or letters in there too.

There’s some personal data there. How are you handling that? How do those big online storage sites handle that data?

I like a papery office

One of my favourite things about researching a family tree, is having documents, objects, papers, letters, photos etc in a real tangible form. Even if they are just photocopies, or photo reprints. I really enjoy having these items around me, and find them useful. I spend too much of my day staring at a screen already – ‘real’ objects are a welcome break.

Filing is of course important, but no-one is really going to hack my paper files. The worst fate they can meet is fire, flood, robbery, or a stray firework.

Thinking about privacy

I’m fortunate with my Reunion 10 software on my Mac, in that I can flag anyone as ‘private’, and when I do, they are then excluded from any data exports that I do, until i un-flag them.

The 'Private' option in Reunion10 for Mac.

The ‘Private’ option in Reunion10 for Mac.

So I can happily share my data with anyone, knowing that I won’t be about to give personal details away.

Building a tree in privacy

If you’re wanting to build a tree online, but want to retain privacy, then there are a few sites that allow for this.

Famberry logoOne site that takes data privacy as its main point, is Famberry, whose online tool specialises in allowing you to build a tree in collaboration with those you specifically invite, and no-one else, from the out-set. Whilst they’ve seen success in the US, where data privacy has been a big issue/challenge/problem and therefore a key topic for web users, they’re busy building their UK presence.

Sites like FindMyPast, GenesReunited, and of course Ancestry, also include options to set your tree as private, and also to make living relatives anonymous to those outside of your invited tree viewers.

FindMyPast's privacy settings

FindMyPast’s new tree tool includes two sets of privacy settings – one for the tree, one for living twigs.

However, that note above from FindMyPast has got a point… sharing IS a great way to learn from those who have the same interests.

So what IS privacy? What is the bare minimum that you can share, and what you should share? What happens if someone asks you to hide/remove their data? A lot of our basic information is easily available via Facebook, Google+, electoral records, LinkedIn, telephone directory services (print and online), newspaper clippings, and even headstones give away information.

I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below:

  • How do you handle privacy in genealogy?
  • Have you ever asked to be hidden/excluded?
  • Have you ever been asked to hide someone’s details?

About Andrew Martin

+Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.
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2 Responses to Privacy and the Genealogist

  1. I really like the image you used!
    I was once asked to remove SSDI info on a deceased person (grandfather). It was in a source citation. I use RootsWeb WorldConnect to share my GEDCOM and include all notes and sources, do not allow downloads, and have the living finder set at 1914 (max is 1930). I removed the individual using the “Individuals to Remove” from a GEDCOM option on the RootsWeb’s upload page. Easy fix. She was happy and let me know several years later that I could un-do the hide.

  2. Pingback: Famberry offering a larger ‘pot’ for your family tree | History Repeating

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