Privacy and the Genealogist

How are you handling data privacy in your family tree research?

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?

How a QR code could give you that family history research breakthrough

Creepy or a lovely sentimental touch? How a QR (quick response) code could help you break through that research brickwall by providing you with extra information at the grave side.

Small black and white squares and a handheld device could be the key to that long-awaited research breakthrough.

QR codeQR codes (‘quick response codes’) are a kind of square barcode that can be scanned by mobile and tablet device cameras and then link you through to a webpage. You may have seen some on bus stop or underground posters, or food packaging, or even on the tags found on the end of a teabag string.

Whilst those examples might not help you discover what happened to your Great Great Aunt Emily after surviving the sinking of the Titanic, or reveal a photo of your mysterious lost Uncle Freddie, QR codes could become a genealogist’s friend in the future.

Memorials

Companies are finding ways to use these codes to expand on the information that can be obtained from gravestones. I quite like this idea, although several non-genealogist friends I’ve talked about this with, find the idea to be unsettling.

So will it catch on here in the UK? I guess it’s down to the delivery – if a memorial web page had to carry advertising, or was poorly designed, i’m sure that it would be unpopular.

poll carried out by The Guardian newspaper in September 2012, found that 62% of respondents answered ‘No’ to the question ‘Would you have a QR code on your gravestone?’. Is the QR code a fad? Deemed ‘too gimmicky’ and disrespectful to appear on a gravestone?

To explain how a QR code may work on a gravestone, here’s a video from Quiring Monuments – just one of many organisations who offer this service in the USA.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has already started a similar project to bring QR codes in to Botley Cemetery, Oxfordshire, England, which they hope to complete in time for the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014.

Heritage and Education

In May 2012, Monmouth in Wales, became the world’s first ‘Wikipedia town’, with buildings receiving QR codes that would lead tourists to find out more about the history when scanned, under the moniker of ‘Monmouthpedia’.

Gibraltar and Brazil followed suit with similar ideas.

QR codes are generally free to create. I created the code at the top of this article at Kaywa.com.

Have you ever seen,or used a QR code on a headstone? Are headstone QR codes a creepy or a lovely sentimental touch? Would love to know what you think.