There isn’t time in the day to list all the ways that the internet has changed our lives for the better, but one very specific group of users finds it invaluable for their work: genealogists. Whether mapping out a family tree as a hobby or handling the work of ancestry professionally, genealogists rely on the readily available search tools and databases of public records to connect the family dots.
But some of those tools, especially ones that are being marketed to the amateur genealogists out there, have been found to contain perhaps more information than users want to share.
About five years ago, Ancestry.com, one of the most well-known genealogy websites, announced that it would no longer share Social Security numbers for people who’ve been deceased for less than ten years, due to the increasing rates of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) fraud and the identity theft of deceased people. However, Ancestry.com’s user Q&A site AncestryForum has fielded conversations as recently as 2015 from people who said their Social Security numbers simply “appeared” as facts on their family trees; other users’ input as to how this could have happened didn’t explain the issue.
Why would a genealogy site even need to supply Social Security numbers? There is a wealth of information to be gained by contacting the Social Security Administration (SSA) about a long-past relative, such as where they were born, when they married, and more. It’s a little unnerving to think of people researching you by your SSN, but when looking for information that goes back multiple generations, it really can solve a lot of puzzles.
Another genealogy site, FamilyTreeNow, is coming under intense fire from the public due to the abundance of information it contains. The site actually serves as a clearinghouse of public records searches, meaning they’ve done a lot of the legwork for you in terms of gathering up publicly available information. All of the sites that serve as resources for genealogy projects are simply compiling the public information that is already available…about you. That means that anyone with the interest and motivation can find all of this out, even without going through one of these resources to expedite the process. While that might cause feelings of “Big Brother” alarm, it shouldn’t; again, the information is public record, whether due to government regulation or your voluntary participation.
What should be alarming, though, are the numbers of people who still don’t know what regular habits they should use to protect themselves. Things like safeguarding your Social Security number from people who don’t actually need it are crucial. Making sure your passwords on all of your accounts are unique, strong, and changed regularly is also important. Monitoring your credit report for any signs of suspicious activity, as well as reporting deaths in your family to the SSA in order to avoid fraud with a relative’s SSN, are necessary, too. Instead of worrying about the information that the public is entitled to find out, we should worry about the information we accidentally hand over every day, possibly even to an identity thief.
How much information are you putting out there? It’s probably too much. We are here to help you stop sharing Too Much Information. Sign up for the TMI Weekly.