The information highway has put increasing amounts of research data just a keystroke or two away from anyone tracing their family roots, but hardcore genealogists warn researchers need to proceed down that road with caution.
“We really don’t realize how careless we have been through the years putting information out there,” said Kathryn Kelly, longtime Maine genealogist. “Once you type something on that keyboard and hit send, it’s out there in cyberspace forever and ever and that information can be unearthed by anyone.”
The explosion of people search sites online like Spokeo or Intelius is nothing new, according to the Post’s story.
What concerns genealogists like Kelly is how easy newer sites like FamilyTreeNow make it for anyone to access personal information on a single, free website.Unlike most personal data sites, FamilyTreeNow does not require a fee or creation of an account to access detailed profiles of individuals.
By simply typing in a name on FamilyTreeNow, information including that individual’s past and current addresses, phone numbers, date of birth, family members and “possible associates” are listed.
Much of the information gleaned from the site comes from individuals conducting routine business online.
“If you have ever registered to vote or licensed your car that information is online,” said Dr. Carol Prescott McCoy, of Brunswick and president of Find Your Roots. “You would be amazed at how much of your personal information is out there regardless of what you think you have kept private.”
Sites like FamilyTreeNow — which did not respond to emailed requests for comment — engage in what Kelly calls data-mining.
“If you sign up for a newsletter, one of those quick credit checks or take part in an online quiz for fun, that information can be ‘mined’ by these sites and made available to anyone,” she said. “There are very sophisticated, computer-savvy people out there doing this.”
Of course, as Christopher Dunham, founder of MaineGenealogy.net points out, genealogists depend on getting around privacy issues.
“We wait patiently for the dead to lose their right to privacy so we can rummage through their records [and] we track the living by any means we can,” he said. “That said, genealogists do have qualms about sharing or publishing information about living people without their consent [and] this is especially true of information that’s been compiled from multiple sources.”
Dunham said the availability of free personal information on FamilyTreeNow is unsettling.
“No reputable genealogy website would offer this service,” he said. “And no reputable genealogist would demand it.”
Most online personal data sites have the so-called “opt out” availability and, while it can be time consuming to go through the process, Kelly said it is more than worth it.
“I sat down and with the FamilyTreeNow site and did the opt opt for myself, my husband and my kids [and] it took a fair amount of time,” she said. “I really recommend doing that.”
Reputable genealogy research sites will have options for preserving privacy, Kelly said.
“If a site does not have that option, stay away from it,” she said. “You may have to really hunt for the options in the fine print, but take the time to do it.”
Kelly also urged people to be proactive with their personal information online.
“Your genealogy research should be as secure as your banking information,” she said. “Once something is typed on your keyboard and shared somewhere else, it is out there to be found and used forever.”
Kelly recommends online researches make sure they use and update malware data-mining software, scan for network security, create distinct usernames and passwords for each research site being used, avoid submitting dates of birth or other information of living people and be cautious of downloading information from unknown sources which may not be secure.
All that information available online is a mixed blessing, McCoy said.
“One of the things I have concerns about myself is putting family tree information online that includes the names of the living,” she said. “You do want to be able to find people [but] you want to protect yourself and others, too so it’s important to be vigilant, check on your own online security frequently and be careful what your throw out there.”
Like it or not, the information genie is already out of the bottle and the best people can do now is minimize exposure, Dunham said.
“You can’t live in the modern world without sometimes exposing your identity and whereabouts online,” he said. “But whatever the threat posed by FamilyTreeNow, the genealogical community is not to blame.”
Dunham said the site is “masquerading” as a legitimate genealogy site but is of limited use to anyone doing serious research.
“I certainly would never upload my family tree to a website that has become famous for invading the privacy of millions,” he said. “It is always appropriate to request that a researcher take down what he has published [and] anyone who refuses such a request has issues that go beyond his choice of hobbies.”
Dunham believes genealogy should be harmless pursuit, but acknowledged toes can get stepped on and privacy violated in the excitement of expanding family trees.
“The legitimate researcher will be mindful of the privacy concerns of others,” he said. “And ask himself, ‘Is this something I really need to know?’”