A Genealogy Dilemma: Public vs. Private

RecordClick Genealogical Service Dilemma - Private or Public

Dealing with a dilemma is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Neither option is altogether good, and neither is altogether bad – they balance each other when it comes to confusing you as to which side to take. The options are sometimes equally as bad, and sometimes equally as good. Such is the case when it comes to private vs. public information. In the case of this blog, Joan Shurtliff, a board certified genealogist, discusses the dilemma between public information vs. private information, and how it affects genealogical researchers. We may want our privacy, but please don’t take our Social Security Death Index.

You’re between a rock and a hard place – private information vs. public information. It’s a genealogical research dilemma – that’s what it is.

A family genealogy researcher, proud of the accomplishment and sincerely looking for long-lost cousins, once posted a genealogy tree on a public website. One of the first responses the family historian received concerned a date that the correspondent felt was incorrect. And the battle was waged.

Has it happened to me? Yup, only I try very hard to avoid the battle part by assuming the positive – maybe the correspondent knows something I don’t.

There are a number of genealogy websites on which family search genealogy can be posted. And websites work very hard to make it easy to post pedigree charts, genealogy trees, and family histories and stories.

Those family genealogy researchers who are posting the information need to keep in mind that what they may consider to be private – such as names, dates, and activities – can become very public with the click of a button. When that information becomes public, it is open to scrutiny and all that might entail.

The uproar has calmed, but it hasn’t been that long ago – just a couple of years – when Facebook members posted intimate details about their lives, and they became upset when their activity came back to haunt them.

So where exactly is the line between public and private information? The definitive answer is: It depends. I know that’s not a lot of help to you. However, in this age of computers, surveys, demographics, targeting audiences, hacking, tracking buying habits, and putting any manner of information online – I have no idea what may be considered “private” data about anyone (especially me) out there in the etherworld of the Internet, a very public place. Once on the Internet, whatever information you post is pretty much available for public scrutiny.

One of the largest uproars in the genealogical research community is over the online databases of the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). Did you know that there is a contingency that would like to have the SSDI removed from the Internet?

The Social Security System was created as a partial safety net during the Depression, and the SSDI has become a major research resource for family historians. Meant as an enhancement to an individual’s retirement fund, Social Security helps retired recipients to support themselves and their families after they exit the workforce. In the beginning, adults received their Social Security card with a designated number unique to them. When I was in elementary school, I can remember my parents taking my brothers and me to the bank to get our Social Security cards. Now, even infants receive them.

Information available through SSDI online includes: name, birth date, social security number, last place of residence, and death date. The controversy lies not so much in the names and dates, but in the publishing of the Social Security number. Remember public scrutiny?

The fact this information is released so quickly presents a dilemma. First, it is the release of private information. We are told to be very, very careful to whom we give our Social Security number. However, an individual on the SSDI got there for one reason and one reason only – because they are deceased, and that gives credence to the other side of the dilemma. What’s the benefit of making the private information public? The original intent was to help prevent fraud. If a client is suspect, a bank or business can easily check the Social Security number assigned to them to see if it has been taken from a person no longer with us.

States restrict access to vital records (private), but regulations vary from entity to entity. After a period of time, a number of states publish indexes or the records themselves online or on microfilm (public). Most court records are open to the public. Exceptions may include adoptions and institutionalization of an individual for mental reasons. However, residents of orphanages, hospitals, mental institutions, and jails are listed in a state or U.S. census (public). It may take a round-about search, but sometimes what may be considered private to one entity may be considered available in a public forum.

So, as far as I’m concerned, little is truly private. Based on that, I try to act accordingly.

“Knowledge is power,” according to English author, scientist, statesman, and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The more we know about ourselves and our world, the better off we are. Gaining that knowledge is a challenge family search historians and genealogists strive for with a passion.

However, with knowledge comes responsibility. What had been private information may become public. Someone may disagree with our facts. Situations our ancestors had to deal with may make us a bit uncomfortable if made public. Stories of our ancestors that we grew up with may be proved or disproved or enhanced with research. That’s the way it is, whether we like it or not.

At RecordClick, we understand the differences between public and private resources. What you may expect from our experienced genealogists is that we will work with you on your family genealogy confidentially. We know where to look to help you find what you’re looking for. We can help you trace your ancestry with research strategies or work on projects – large or small – along with you.