Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Privacy and the living

The National Genealogical Society has published Guidelines for Sharing Information with Others. I like this document because it is good practice for all genealogists and family historians from the absolute beginner to the most advanced. I wish I could give every person who embarks on their family history adventure a copy of this.

The privacy of living individuals is an important ethical concern.  Interestingly, we find the names of living people in many publicly assessable databases so one could make the argument that since the information is out there it is fair game.  I do not agree with this.  I think that living persons have the right to privacy.

So let’s take a look at how some of the repositories/tree sites handle living people.

Find a Grave has a link on their home page for their Privacy Statement though is is more about your privacy as a consumer/user of Find a Grave.  They do have two entries in their FAQ that address living persons.

What about the privacy of living family members?
An individual's right to privacy disappears when they are deceased. The opinions of the relatives of the deceased fall on all sides of the question. Some people are angry to find a loved one when they come to Find A Grave, even if the memorial was added by another relative, as is usually the case, and some people are elated and send us notes of thanks for building an online memorial to their family member. If an immediate family member contacts us and wants information removed, we generally do so as a matter of respect for their wishes but we treat each request on a case by case basis. The names of living survivors will be removed from the biography section of a memorial upon request.

Is it acceptable to add a memorial for someone who is still living?
Please try to avoid it. In general, we do not encourage adding memorials for individuals who are still living. We do realize, however, that when transcribing a cemetery, it is not always possible to determine if the person is living or not. Memorials for individuals who are alive will be removed when requested (the exception being for 'famous' individuals who already have a burial location in place). You are always welcome to create a 'pre-need' memorial for yourself, if you would like, provided that you have a pre-need headstone already in place in a cemetery. Given these exceptions, a memorial created after death will be preferred over a pre-need memorial. has good information but it isn’t easy to find if you are navigating their website. I found it because I knew how to Google what I was looking for. There isn’t a link for it on their main page nor on their Site Map. They have a main Privacy Center where several different topics are addresses.  At the very bottom you will see a link for Privacy for Your Family Tree which is what I was most interested in today. Even if you don’t “sanitize” your file before you upload (exclude living people completely or change their name to Living and exclude their details) Ancestry will automatically do it when you upload which I like because if someone is a beginner they may not know to do this on their own.

FamilySearch’s Privacy Policy wasn’t directly linked to their main page nor was it on their Site Map. I found it by doing a search. This was a bit hard to read and covered several topics in one article.  I did find a second article that was specific to FamilySearch’s Family Tree—Private Spaces and Data Access Control. FamilySearch assumes a person is living if there is no death date nor any obvious way to know that the person is in fact dead. In FamilySearch’s case these people are not marked “Private” as you will see on Ancestry but rather they are completely invisible except to the person that added them. If you add your tree to the Family Tree via gedcom, as you go through the instructions you are told “Any living people in your GEDCOM will not be added to Family Tree.” One thing you have to watch out for here is that you need to go through your file and mark the people that are deceased as being deceased.  If you have someone in the 1700s that is designated as living that person will not upload. Some genealogy programs have a tool that will analyze your file and mark everyone that should be deceased as being deceased.

FindMyPast’s Privacy Policy includes both your privacy as the consumer as well as the privacy of those contained in your tree. A link to the privacy policy does not appear on their home page but does appear on their site map. There is one paragraph that concerns me:

“Information stored in your family tree will, in almost all cases, include personal information about other people that are still alive. As with all information in your family tree, your information may be searchable by users (together with users of other websites) and may appear on internet searches, but all of the information will not be viewable unless you explicitly give them permission to view your tree.” [emphasis mine].

I take this to mean that you can see a living person’s name on a search but not their details. I hope people are scrubbing their files before they upload but if the person is new to family research they may not know to do this.

A link to MyHeritage’s Privacy Policy appears on their home page which is a good thing. It covers both the consumer’s privacy and the privacy in the submitted trees. You need to pay attention to this paragraph:

“The user decides to what degree information on the family tree and other information from the family site will be visible to and discoverable by other users, by setting the Privacy Preferences (described in a detailed section below). The user decides whether to build the family tree on the Website on his/her own, or to make it a collaborative effort by inviting family members to assist, using facilities available on the Website for inviting members. If other members are invited, they make similar choices on entering information into the family tree. All information is entered into the Website directly and is not collected implicitly. The Website prevents information on living people from being disclosed to strangers, to protect privacy, and such information if entered will not be visible outside the family site or discoverable by search engines such as Google. It is often useful however to allow deceased people entered into the family tree to be visible to and searchable by other people, to allow one's distant relatives to discover it.”

MyHeritage allows collaboration between family members.  Anyone you invite to view your tree will see all of the data you have entered, even information on living people, so if you are planning to collaborate with people that are not your close relatives you might want to scrub your file before uploading.  It is good to know that anyone else will not have access to that data.

Copyright © 2016 Michèle Simmons Lewis


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Candid Camera

An interesting conversation about ethics came up after the 2016 International Genetic Genealogy Conference videos had been released (I HIGHLY recommend these). I was watching one of Blaine Bettinger’s lectures and I noticed a person in the audience taking photos of Blaine’s PowerPoint slides. I posted about this on my Facebook wall and several genealogists weighed in including a couple of the presenters from this conference as well as some of the participants. The consensus was that the person was in the wrong but not only because the slides are under copyright but also because holding up a cell phone or camera to take pictures can be distracting to others. A couple of people said that it was okay if you obtained the presenter’s permission up front. As a presenter myself I would not allow this because of the distraction. I might make the slides available depending on what topic the lecture was on. If this was a new lecture and I planned to give the talk to other groups I probably would not release the slides. Some presenters do make their slides available online or as a handout but this is the presenter’s choice and not an obligation. Someone stated that an announcement should be made at the beginning of the conference explaining that the slides are copyrighted and no photos are allowed so that everyone is on the same page. I think this is a good idea because there are a lot of people that are new to genealogy and new to conferences that might not know this.

Another point was brought up during the conversation by one of the participants. Researchers from other countries may have different ethical (and legal) standards than in the United States. We need to take this into consideration when working with researchers in other parts of the world. I work with German genealogists all the time and the one thing that stands out is that they are a much more private people. Vital records are guarded and can only be released after a specific number of years. This is true for the entire country. Here in the States every state (and sometimes county) has their own set of rules, some stringent, some lax. If I told my friends in Germany that I have access to contemporary birth indexes in some states I think they would be taken aback. This is the same reason that DNA isn’t catching on there as fast as I would like.

Copyright © 2016 Michèle Simmons Lewis

Monday, December 19, 2016


Welcome to Ethics and the Genealogist. I felt that there was a need for a blog dedicated to the ethical concerns genealogists face. These ethical issues have come to the forefront now that genealogy is so visible on the internet and social media. I also created the Ethics and the Genealogist Facebook Group page as a forum for active discussion on these issues. It is a closed group to help cut down on spamming so you will need to send a request to join. Either I or one of the moderators will approve your request.

Copyright © 2016 Michèle Simmons Lewis