A friend of mine called me to ask about how to set up a database to store all her current family’s information for their upcoming family reunion. Lots of red flags popped up as she was describing the book her cousin was putting together on the extended family. They were collecting all the names and birthdates and birth places, the marriage dates and places, and the latest death information as well. And not only this kind of usual genealogical information, but also details of people’s awards and achievements, schools, jobs, hobbies, interests, military service, pets, and the list went on and on. It was a great idea—for a pure-minded genealogist, that is.
Unfortunately, nowadays we no longer live in a world where people can publish these detailed records without a terrible risk. There are identity thieves, sexual predators, people enslaved by drugs, people caught by pornography, people entangled in every other criminal activity, and they may be in any family anywhere. Your aunt or cousins may be hiding one from the knowledge of the rest of the family because of shame. And you are going to give them a detailed bio of your whole family? No, that’s not a good idea.
I advised my friend that if she participated in the book at all, supply only names—give no dates, no places, no other information about the family at all, not of any kind. It is a serious blow to genealogists that families have to protect themselves and especially their children, but who could seriously do anything else, given the realities of this world?
There are ways to get around this problem for the genealogist. Mostly they involve doing a lot of research on and talking with the person with whom you think you’ll share genealogy. Then you have to develop a sixth sense for when to exercise caution.
My basic cautions are these: never post anything about living persons online, unless you can be absolutely sure your website is secure and memberships are invitation-only, and you personally know all the members. Never share more than names online when you are reasonably certain of the security, and you know how those names are going to be used. Exchange a lot of emails with a newly-discovered “cousin” who shares your interest in a common ancestor before exchanging current family information, and then only names. Ask your relatives to keep your family out of online genealogies and published collections of descendants of a common ancestor.
These tips will not stop a determined person from obtaining information about you and your family, but they will help you keep your family safe from casual, easy access.
Don’t stop doing genealogy, but do be safe out there!