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Genealogy site raises privacy fears, but experts say it's hard to stuff information genie back in bottle

Posted January 25

FamilyTreeNow.com, a free genealogy site, garnered attention and criticism for the free data it makes available about individuals, but it's all easy to find online elsewhere. Experts say it's hard to restore privacy that U.S. law has not protected. (Deseret Photo)

Folks online are worrying about a free genealogy site that lets users search for someone by name then provides the year the individual was born, possible relatives and associates and the person's addresses, past and present.

The personal information available on the FamilyTreeNow.com site is taken from free public databases and can be readily found on other search sites, in various forms, many of which charge for the information.

But an alarm was raised after a woman tweeted about it, friends and others shared the post and it went viral, prompting dozens of news stories. FamilyTreeNow.com has not responded to a request for an interview for this story.

Privacy and information experts say that how people manage access to their digitized data will continue to be a challenge because that information never goes away.

"Once information is digitized and posted anywhere on the web, it has virtually become perpetual and eternal," said University of Utah professor Randy Dryer, an expert in media, privacy and information law. "Even if it's removed shortly after it was posted, it's probably either cached on search engines or part of a backup that's maintained or else someone downloaded it. Once something's on the internet, there's permanency to it."

It's also likely impossible to restore privacy that U.S. law never protected.

"Privacy protection in the U.S., in general, is pretty weak," said Brigham Young University law professor Clark Asay, who teaches and writes about information privacy.

"Once information is public, people take it and use it how they like," he said, acknowledging it's a "little more unnerving when information is presented in consolidated form."

'The new oil'

Most people don't understand how much information is being collected. Dryer said personal information is gathered into massive databases regularly "and to a far more pervasive extent than most people realize, either voluntarily or involuntarily."

Individuals readily provide information to Google, Facebook and other social networks. The sites' privacy policies — which most people opt into without actually reading — explain how they'll use the data. Some will sell it, sometimes in an individually not-identifiable form; some use it to target their advertising at specific consumers. Dryer said he's amazed at the sheer amount of information people provide in online surveys or when they register to win a free iPad.

The issue has been known for a long time. In 2014, Jacob Morgan, a futurist, keynote speaker and author of “The Future of Work," wrote in a column for Forbes that "most of (us) use Facebook, have iPhones, use Twitter, search on Google, and use the hundreds of other tools and platforms that companies have so graciously given us access to. We subscribe to newsletters, buy things online, take quizzes, allow our apps to access third-party websites, enter contests, and register for conferences. Simply loading a web page of any kind tracks some kind of information about you.”

Data that's directly provided allows those who collect it to infer other information, such as political affiliation, Dryer said. And collecting two piles of information that have something in common, like an email address, creates a fuller picture of the individual.

"There's no such thing as free in the online world," he said. "There's no fee to open a Facebook account, but Facebook probably has more information about individuals than any other entity, including the government." He warned that unless folks log out each time they leave the site, it tracks movement elsewhere on the web. "It knows what websites you visited, how long you were there and if you made purchases, not to mention what you like and dislike based on the things you click on while on Facebook."

Advertisers love that kind of information. "Say someone is putting together upscale vacations," Dryer said. "They can go to Facebook and get an ad targeted to everyone with a college education who is older than 15, has no children and earns over $200,000 a year.

"Personal data is the new oil. It has value and people are giving it away all the time, sometimes knowingly and perhaps not."

Risk and reward

Before the internet, people "enjoyed a certain amount of practical anonymity," according to Asay. Someone would have to make more effort to get information because it was not all in one place.

Still, Asay notes, "there are plenty of arguments that privacy concerns are exaggerated. Everyone says they're concerned about privacy, but if you give them 20 cents, they tell you whatever you want. … All the information allows us to do some amazing things." His list of amazing includes creating products that better meet consumer needs and that directly target the right buyer, too.

It's a mixed bag. Data available online makes it easier to find an old friend, but it may also make stalking more simple, as critics claim. And the right data could be a tool for identity theft, among other things. Folks bent on that crime can even employ the kind of online quiz that individuals love. It's important to watch the kind of question being asked. Often, they're remarkably similar to typical security questions.

Already there

FamilyTreeNow isn't particularly special in terms of finding information. I spent 20 minutes looking up names of co-workers on various sites to get a sense of how FamilyTreeNow.com compares to others that mine and then share public information.

FamilyTreeNow couldn't figure out who my husband was but did show that two colleagues use their middle names instead of their first names. As for possible relatives — for them and for me — it batted about 75 percent, similar to lists on other sites including the online white pages, 411.com and Spokeo.

Most of the other sites I noodled names on offer a deeper dive into personal information, including phone numbers, emails and criminal background checks for a fee. The genealogy site only provided a current address, correctly some of the time.

Crafting a careful Google search turned up similar information. When I looked up a friend's husband, I hit a virtual motherlode of data by following a Google search link to another data site I'd never heard of. It provided his current address, exact birthday, marital status, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus names, a list of 10 neighbors and their addresses, as well as names, ages and addresses of several relatives. Although more information was reportedly available for a fee, I didn't have to invest a penny to get all that.

Hard to escape the past

The U.S. government has tried to control use of some types of personal information. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act governs the sharing of health information, among other things, and includes patient privacy protections. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule is overseen by the Federal Trade Commission with an aim to protect online privacy of children under age 13. It's why kids younger than 13 are not supposed to have a Facebook account, for instance, although the behemoth online media site has no mechanism to verify age.

It's a far cry from protections created in the European Union, which has more rules governing data. "The EU views data as a commodity and says that the individual owns that commodity," Dryer said.

In the EU, unless one provides "affirmative dissent" — yes, please do keep this information — companies and databases cannot collect and use certain data. It applies to all segments of EU society and industry, said Dryer.

Europe also codified a "right to forget." America has not. Some U.S. media outlets are re-examining how to handle their story databases since the advent of search engines that pull up information quickly.

Dryer and Asay point to instances where U.S. newspapers, for example, have been asked to take down old stories. Say a former drug user who was the subject of a story has since cleaned up his life, but whenever a prospective employer searches for the person online, the old story comes up. Asay said news organizations are frequently asked to remove such stories — a controversial request.

"Even newspapers are thinking about the permanency of the internet — and an argument that one should not rewrite history," said Dryer, who noted that when he handled libel cases, "it used to be the only thing they wanted other than money was an apology. Now, more than money, they want the allegedly false story removed from online."

The story doesn't have to be wrong. People want unflattering portrayals to disappear, too. But even if a news organization complied, it doesn't mean the story won't surface, courtesy of previously mentioned data-saving efforts like caches.

That's led to the creation of another industry, Dryer said. People who call themselves "reputation managers" will try to get negative material online removed, or generate positive content so that the negative publicity is repressed. Sometimes it's a matter of creating enough good buzz that when the person's name comes up in an online search, any negative publicity is relegated to the third or fourth page of the search results. With short attention spans, most Americans don't scroll that far.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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