One of the fun things about researching one’s family history is thinking about what traits we inherited from which ancestors. For example, I got my father’s stubby little toes and my mom’s long, artistic fingers. Inheritance of personality traits is much more complicated; I think my tendency to hold a grudge came from my sweet yet stubborn little Granny, but I know my love of genealogy is due to my shy and unassuming Grandpa.
He was the first one I had ever heard of who made a family tree. This intricate hand-drawn map of familial relations is a cherished gift which preserves my childhood self as a budding leaf on my mom’s twig. He organized the first family reunion in 1980, designed to bring together all his siblings and their descendants, the Canadian offspring of his parents, who had emigrated from Russia in 1906. This reunion came to be an event that occurred every five years and was hosted by a different family branch each time.
I have vague recollections of the first event: watching mom’s aunt wham a softball though the summer heat and score a home-run, the scent of whole pigs being unearthed after roasting all day, and posing for the cameras in front of the bright red barn and reunion banner with Grandpa and all his descendants. By the time the next reunion rolled around, I was away and on my own and I did not attend another until the last one, to which I brought my own little family. They found it overwhelming, even though at 250 attendees, only half the family showed up.
Preparations are currently under way for this year’s event and after 35 years, it will probably be the last, despite the fact the tradition has only reached the 8th of 11 family branches. My mom’s cousins are passing away and as they are now all grandparents or great-grandparents, the family has grown too large and distant. My perspective is not unusual: it is hard enough to keep in contact with my own cousins, let alone second or third cousins, strangers I have never met.
As part of the reunion tradition, a family member decided at least fifteen years ago to create a family history book. It preserves immigration and pioneering stories and provides translations of family letters and diaries. It is a treasure. The author also decided to include a family tree, compiled in the latest computer software of the time. He has continued to update the tree, with all the newest family additions over the years. In preparation for this year’s reunion, he sent out a request for updates to the members of his mailing list.
This brings me to the crux of my story. In the interests of simplifying the data-management, he made a grave error. He posted all of the family data, including full names and vital statistics of living people, on the internet. I was appalled, angered, incensed even. Fortunately, I was working on my computer when the e-mail came in and I checked out the link to the website right away. I instantly drafted up a response and after a few edits provided by my calm, and computer savvy husband, fired it off.
I explained to my distant relative, that it is unfair, unethical, and unwise to post other people’s personal information in a public forum. (I’m paraphrasing here, dear readers, because of my desire to prevent you from ever making such a foolish mistake.) It is unfair to take personal information that has been entrusted to you and to make that public; haven’t we all learned as children the importance of keeping a secret? It is unethical to share this type of family data with anyone; it is common practice in genealogy to exclude living people from any published family tree in order to preserve their privacy. This is because it is unwise to make personal information public, especially in an electronic format. Personal data needs to be secure in order to protect us from various fraudulent activities including identity theft. Electronic information can spread rapidly and leave us even more vulnerable. Some jurisdictions I have worked with (e.g. the State of Wisconsin) have made it illegal to make even historic vital statistics documents available to the public in electronic format.
I insisted that our information be removed immediately or that at least the website be protected with a password that was to be shared only with the family on that mailing list. While this distant relative did not grasp the concepts of privacy that I have outlined above, he did not see the point in password protection either, claiming that only family could see the site. I did a simple google search with ‘(surname) family’ and the site came up as the second hit. I even had to send a screenshot to this person to prove that anyone out there who knew our surname could find all our data. I also knew the urgency of the situation. This distant relative seemed unaware that things that go up on the internet are there to stay, because of archiving web-crawlers. I know that sounds like some menacing bespectacled spider with a penchant for organizing libraries for sinister purposes. What I mean is that information cannot be erased from the internet once a site has been preserved by others who have accessed it. An actual person could have downloaded all that data, but usually an automated snapshot is taken of sites and then placed in an archive, so that it remains accessible even if the website is changed in the future. So, time was of the essence in removing or protecting our information.
Fortunately, this distant relative complied with my demand for privacy and altered the web-site before it was cached (preserved as is). So, I have accomplished my mission(s). I succeeded in preserving my family’s privacy and now I have hopefully prevented a similar error from occurring in the future by explaining the reasons one should never reveal another’s personal data, especially on-line.
Now, if I could just figure out which ancestor I inherited my righteous indignation from…
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.