Publication of genealogical information and data protection issues

Genealogist Ronald Willemseby genealogist, Ronald Willemse

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.

Publication
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.

Swiss records
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.

Foreign records
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.

3 thoughts on “Publication of genealogical information and data protection issues

  1. “In California, records of all births from 1905 to 1995 are freely available on the internet, including the maiden name of the mother.”

    Unfortunately the records are NOT freely available, what is available is transcriptions of the CA birth index, (which contain lots of errors).

    California law says you can obtain an authorized copy or an informational copy. An informational copy contains the same information as an authorized copy, but will have a legend across the face with the statement “INFORMATIONAL, NOT A VALID DOCUMENT TO ESTABLISH IDENTITY.” BE AWARE that this writing will block out whatever is written underneath and that can include vital data (like dates, etc.)

    California vital records prior to July 1st, 1905 are found within the county where the event occurred. Records thereafter were kept by the State Registrar of Vital Statistics. No statewide index is available for records prior to 1905. For birth, marriage and death records prior to 1905, write to the clerk of the county in question. For birth, marriage and death records after 1905, write: Office of Vital Records and Statistics, Department of Health Services-Sacramento.

    For all USA States-VitalChek is a service that will allow you to order copies of birth, death, marriage and divorce certificates for your ancestors. BUT you must know the Date of Birth, State of Birth, Fathers FULL name and Mothers MAIDEN name

    “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.”

    Unfortunately copyright laws are different country to county and some countries the data is copyrighted. Consult a copyright attorney regarding this matter.

    “The law speaks of “personal data deserving of special protection””
    Again this is different country to country, so check the laws where you are. US laws are different that Swiss laws for example.

    “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.”

    The genealogical standard is to NEVER publish on the internet any information on those living. Identity theft is peoples main concern. Having their name and their mother’s maiden name is giving the thief’s half the information they need. So keeping data 3-4 generations away from the living person is the best unless you have their person. So if it is me then great grandmother or great great grandmother would be the lowest generation. Also do not do Living Lastname as found on Ancestry.com as this still gives the mother’s maiden name.
    Of course sharing information with proven family members is a different matter.

    While “The internet provides a wealth of data for genealogical research”
    TONS of the information is incorrect and lots is what a person wishes their genealogy to be. This incorrect information gets re-posted over and over and unfortunately some people read what is posted and take the information as fact. I consider data found on the internet as a starting place, from their you have to find the Primary and Secondary sources to PROVE the information. Without documentation it can only be considered hearsay. Of course this does NOT apply to pay services that provide actual copies of source information.

  2. Oops typo— “So keeping data 3-4 generations away from the living person is the best unless you have their person. ” Should be So keeping data 3-4 generations away from the living person is the best unless you have their personal permission.

  3. Mrs. Jill Sybalsky,

    Thank you for you valuable comments, which deserve a short feed back.

    By writing that birth records 1905-1995 in California are freely available on the internet, I intended that SF-Genealogy and other organisations are legally allowed to publish the transcriptions. We are well aware to be careful because there are quite some errors, however, this does not stop me from using these transcriptions, obviously with a corresponding source indication, so that people know. The same caution and attitude is due to information found in other family trees. Unfortunately we cannot always verify all information with the original documents, so we have to take a minimum risk. But even with original census, parish or civil records you will not only encounter many errors in spelling and dates, but often contrasting or wrong information.

    Again, privacy is regulated by laws which, as you correctly pointed out, can be quiet different between one country and another. I suppose that Ancestry.com, as you mentioned, by using the “living lastname” option, cannot legally be prosecuted in the U.S. As a rule, the Swiss laws only protect the privacy of living people, and here, publishing a family tree with only first and surnames is not considered against the law, as long as you provide an option for immediate removal upon first request.

    In Europe identity theft is certainly not such a big issue as it is in the U.S., but if you personally prefer to keep data 3-4 generations away from the living this is your choice, obviously fully respected, but I don’t believe that you can legally enforce this to others.

    Ronald

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