Taking the plunge – 2 (Online family trees privacy)

Continuing from my previous article, lets take a look at the issues related to privacy.

Its right that this is probably the single most important concern any of us have about putting our family history on the web. It raises the risk of identity theft; stealing or copying your expensive research; and can actually break any number of laws in some countries, such as copyright and data protection. So many people are immediately turned off the idea. But it can be managed, once enough thought is put into the issues, and providing the right tools are available.

Now, given the risks, it might seem sensible to be ultra-cautious and limit access to your family history site only to people you know and trust. Some people certainly prefer that approach. But I find it spoils one of the greatest opportunities the web can give us; finding previously unknown family members interested in the same line of research as me. I have been able to share information with dozens of 2nd, 3rd and even more distant “cousins” that I would never have known about had they not found some common ancestor on my tree while they were “googling” the web.

So, we want to share at least “some” of our data, but what do we need to look for in order to protect what needs protecting. Here’s my list:

  • Controlled access. I need a way to manage who I let into my site, and what they can do once they get there. For example, webtrees first allows you to control who can register to “join” your site, and then it has six different categories for “users” ( http://wiki.webtrees.net/Access_and_Privacy ):
    • visitors – people who can access the site, but not see anything deemed “private”,
    • members – these can see “private” information (though not necessarily all), but cannot add to or edit any of it,
    • editors – these are members given the additional rights to add or edit data. They might also be limited by the need to have their work “approved” though,
    • moderators – these are “editors” who can approve the changes made by others,
    • managers – the next level has additional rights to allow them to change certain configuration settings for a specific family tree,
    • administrators – the ultimate level, and usually the only person who can do and see absolutely everything. This of course would normally be you.
  • Flexible definitions of “private”. In many products this simply means “hide information about living people”. But life and data are just not that simple! How do you define “living” when you don’t actually know when a person died, or even if they have done? Does your country have strict controls on what data can be publicly displayed? In New Zealand for example, access to some information such as death certificates is limited to “Deaths that occurred at least 50 years ago or the deceased’s date of birth was at least 80 years ago” (see NZ BMD web site). Look for a product able to allow for all these issues (like webtrees, of course).
  • Manage privacy for different types of data. A family tree generally contains five types of information: facts (names, places, etc.); events (like birth, marriage, death); sources, pictures and documents (“media items”); and notes. It is important to at least have the ability to consider each of these separately.  In my tree, for example, I’m happy to let any casual visitor look at facts, names and dates of my deceased ancestors, but I don’t declare the sources for all my information. Sources are “available on request”, which encourages serious researchers to contact me and discuss our shared interests, rather than simply taking whatever they want.

I found a lot of other sites that explain pretty much the same concepts. Here are just a few:

If you follow these guidelines, and above all, THINK about what you want to do with your own family’s history, then you can share it on the internet and feel safe doing it. So come on in, take the plunge, the water’s beautiful……..