Here’s something you can do in ten minutes or less which will give you a helpful illustration of the differences between US and EU privacy laws and show you the power of combining multiple databases which contain crumbs of personally identifying information.
Do you know someone who lives in the US? You probably do. Click on over to familytreenow.com.
It looks innocent enough, even pretty helpful, doesn’t it? It uses welcoming copy like “Start your journey”, “Discover your past” and “100% free”. Who wouldn’t want to do a bit of research on their ancestry, especially for free?
Try searching for the name of someone you know in the US. You don’t have to create an account with the site to do this. In a couple of tests the site was extremely accurate in finding the correct person, their spouse, their relatives and even suggested ‘Possible Associates’. It also provided direct links to all addresses that these people had lived at over the past twenty five years.
If you find that more than a bit unsettling, and you really should, there’s a Twitter thread with instructions on how to remove people from Family Tree Now’s listings.
EU citizens currently enjoy stronger privacy protections than people who live in the US, making this sort of service which combines information about people from multiple sources including commercial data brokers harder to develop. For the moment at least.
It’s worth noting that the Irish government doesn’t have a stellar record in being thoughtful before putting Irish citizen’s personal information online. In 2014 the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht launched the irishgenealogy.ie website making information on births, deaths and marriages up to 2013 available to anyone. The site was rapidly taken offline when the risks of identity theft were highlighted. As reported in The Irish Times, Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes “described the publication of the records as a shocking example of public service failure”. A compromise between the department and the Data Protection Commissioner was reached in which only data on births more than 100 years old, marriages more than 75 years old and deaths more than 50 years old was published.
If you’re a Facebook user, and who isn’t these days, you should be aware that in addition to its own unprecedented ability to gather personal information it also acquires information about you from data brokers to add to its dossier on you. It doesn’t tell you it knows more than you think it knows about you.
A Few Things To Bear In Mind
+ Remember that the purpose of these services is to find connections between people. They may prompt you to give them your family member’s personal information as well as your own. Don’t do this unless your family members have consented.
Read More About Data Brokers
+ ‘Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know about You’, ProPublica, June 2014
+ ‘The Nine Companies That Know More About You Than Google Or Facebook’, qz.com, May 2014
+ ‘Meet The Shadowy Tech Brokers That Deliver Your Data To The NSA’, ZDNet, September 2014
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[Image credit: Roman Averin on Unsplash]