Genealogical research and the drawing up of a family tree is neither a short-term nor a simple task. You need to consult registers and documents which in many cases are not easily accessible. This takes commitment, knowledge and, above all, a great deal of patience. When you reach a certain stage in your research (the work is hardly ever finished), there comes a desire to share it with family members and other interested parties.
Making your work available and comparing notes with other researchers -an activity encouraged by the Swiss Genealogicial Society of Italian-Speaking Switzerland (SGSI) – is a very useful way of detecting and correcting possible errors of transcription and interpretation, and of adding to your own data. Research results may be published on paper, for instance in our genealogical bulletin, in other reviews, in books, or even distributed in photocopied form. And it is becoming increasingly common for them to be published on the internet. The internet provides a wealth of data for genealogical research, especially in countries where there is great popular interest in the subject. The web is a great source of new contacts.
Persons who have died
In principle, data protection applies only to the living. All information pertaining to the deceased, including information about their civil status, is in the public domain and freely accessible. Given that genealogical data is not subject to copyright, a family tree limited to persons who have already died may normally be published or transmitted to third parties quite freely. Note, however, that a person’s heirs may request that information about a deceased person be removed if it is considered damaging to their reputation.
Persons still living
Different rules apply when the published material contains references to persons who are, or may still be, alive (i.e. anyone born less that 100 years ago). Where information is obtained, verbally or in writing, regarding dates of birth and marriage, professional matters and other personal details (which may be considered private by family members), the question of consent to their publication arises. Unless the researcher has obtained written authorisation from those concerned, it is his responsibility to restrict dissemination of sensitive data regarding the persons referred to. The law speaks of “personal data deserving of special protection”, defined as information concerning religious, philosophical, political or trade-union-related opinions or activities, health, private life or membership of a particular race, welfare benefits, and administrative and criminal proceedings or sanctions. These definitions seems clear enough, apart from “private life”, which is subject to various interpretations. Most of the people mentioned will have no objections. On the contrary, they will be very happy to feature on a family tree and will contribute actively by reporting new developments or changes. As a rule, though, when living persons are included, information about them should be limited to name and family name, while omitting dates, places and other information. But even so some people might feel their privacy has been infringed, for example if they have been divorced or had illegitimate children – situations in which discretion is essential.
It is the duty of the State to keep civil status and other public registers, and to lay down rules for how the data they contain can be made available. Again, a clear distinction is made between persons still living and the deceased. In Switzerland, consultation of the registers is always subject to the permission of the cantonal supervisory authority. Although federal law applies in this sphere, there are considerable differences in application between one canton and another.
The law varies from one country to another.
In the Netherlands, for example, civil status records are freely accessible to the general public at municipal or regional archives after 100 years (in the case of births), 75 years (marriages) and 50 years (deaths). In the case of deaths, the long time period is because a death certificate may also contain information about living family members. Access to more recent records is granted subject to a written commitment by the researcher not to copy or disseminate information about living persons found in the documents concerned.
In the US, each state manages the issue of privacy in its own way. In California, records of all births from 1905 to 1995 are freely available on the internet, including the maiden name of the mother. This is very useful for genealogical research and helpful for tracing the descendants of immigrants from Ticino. The state of Arizona has computerised all birth certificates and releases them on the internet after 75 years.