Privacy in Family History


There has been a growing consensus over the past four or five years as the Internet has grown more powerful that the type of publication that was possible in the days of the photocopier is no longer safe. These concerns especially focus on the right to privacy of living persons.

I support my living relatives' right to privacy! Part of the concern is crime: people stealing others' identities, stalking, snooping to embarrass workmates or blackmail neighbours and so on. It has been argued that criminals could also obtain their own information from the General Registry Office. That misses the point. Why bother if family historians publish it for free? Moreover the act of visiting the Family Records Centre in London to collect data and being seen there could be seen as a risk by a criminal. Information can be picked up off the Internet entirely anonymously. So we family historians have to act responsibly. It is notable that the GRO has only consented to the computerization (by FreeBMD) of its pre-1900 records, and this is surely motivated largely by privacy concerns. A current review of GRO policy is likely to lead to future restrictions on the release of vital-records information in England and Wales.

An additional but no less important issue is considerateness. Many people object very strenuously to their family history being made known. Some find the past discomforting. One should only publish information about living private individuals after clear consent from those persons. It is not right for us as family historians to arrogate to ourselves the decision about what is publishable. We have greater freedom to decide about the dead, but here too we should never seek to do harm or play up past sins purely out of a prurient interest.

A third area of concern is the question of prudence. Our hobby exists in a kind of legal limbo: but if it antagonizes people, we are likely to face restrictions or even legislation. And it is only a hobby: let's not use it to upset people. We ourselves may be considerate in the way we present information, but we cannot ensure that our readers will be so considerate. It is so easy to copy files and republish them that there is only one way to prevent abuse: don't publish sensitive information in the first place.

Fourthly, many countries have data-protection and privacy legislation along the lines of the European Union guidelines. Rightly so. The existence of large databases with personal information about living individuals must be disclosed, and these information stores must be open to public audit, so that people can stop lies being circulated and rectify false data. Databases of limited scope are exempted from this legislation. Secondary compilations of names, telephone numbers and birthdays for purely personal use are clearly exempt. This exemption may no longer apply if the files are disseminated on the Internet for public use.

These considerations have prompted a movement whose aims are summed up in Jo Mitchell's slogan, "Wanted: Dead Only". For further information about this issue, see her website: which includes links to other sources on this topic.

© Jean-Baptiste Piggin 2000-2009
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