The Beleaguered Nobility of Brittany
Bedford Russell of King's Lynn

Technology Pushes Us Off the Deep End


Bureaucratic insanity


This is good. This is really good.

Historically, the notion of an individual's right to privacy is rather young. Early societies seem not to have considered it. According to a Scientific American timeline on the subject, American Puritans vehemently opposed it, the story goes that French kings would not have comprehended it (indeed, most royalty thought nothing of performing the most intimate acts in front of a crowd of courtiers) but today we cherish it.  

Ever since those in power have had the strength to enforce the documentation of the people under their authority, they have tried to do so. The reasons were almost never academic, but economical: a list of citizens, their ages and sex enabled more efficient taxation and the identification of young men to fill the ranks of armies for conquest.

As we all know, enormous amounts of documentation, revealing all kinds of details about the lives of people long ago and yesterday have been and are being collected and stored. As genealogists, we raid the archives hunting ancestors with joy. It is fun to find out who they were and how they, and consequently we, fit into history. As to the same kinds of documentation and information about our own lives, most of us would prefer it not be available to the entire world, e.g. splattered all over the Internet, at least until we are dead and gone. Therein lies the tug-of-war: we want to find all on others and we want no one to find anything on us. 

It is the Internet, of course, along with various programmes that can manipulate and unite personal data, that is bringing the tug-of-war to the point of one side or the other all falling down. The rate at which not only officially collected but all kinds of personal information is accumulating is astonishing and bizarre. Google "accidentally" scoops up loads of personal data on people while photographing their homes. Scientists (and progeny) have used genealogy DNA websites to identify sperm donors who thought they were anonymous. Facebook gathers and sells to marketing companies as much as it possibly can about the lives of its users, many of whom are young and innocently think it is a free site for connecting with friends. Those are examples of only the legal misuse of personal data. Crooks are having a field day on the Internet.

In the United States, concerns about identity theft have resulted in a few bills being introduced in Congress aiming to limit access to the Social Security Death Index. This is a puny and myopic response to a huge issue when compared to the proposal before the European Parliament, which intends to "strengthen on-line privacy rights" across the entirety of the twenty-seven countries of the Union. More specifically, it will recognize what is called the droit à l'oubli  or the "right to be forgotten", including the right to erase personal information from public view. How many of us wish we could take down words or pictures we put on the Internet in the past? 

Just as a number of genealogy organisations in the United States are opposed to any restriction of access to the Social Security Death Index,  so a number of French genealogy groups and others (including Facebook) are opposed to this Data Protection Reform (though the CNIL supports it). The recent, rather panic-stricken press release of the Association of French Archivists suggests that the proposal says that the only way to prevent the misuse of private data is to eliminate it....all of it.....forever.  To quote: 

"Did you recently graduate? Schools or universities will destroy your file. Did you sell your real estate property? The land registry office will destroy every trace of your property. Are you no longer employed? The organisation you worked for will delete every bit of information related to you." 

Alternatively to the whole document being destroyed, according to the blog of the Fédération Française de Généalogie, this law, if passed, would require the anonymisation (and the British mock the Americans for word invention!) of documents, e.g. presumably with a censor's bold, black marking pen, blocking out names, dates and places from documents. The blog of FranceGenWeb says the law would mean that the websites of the Departmental Archives, with on-line archives (see the panel to the left on this page) would all have to be closed.

Would such a law be applied to historical records? Of course, if not, we would have to reconsider when current information becomes history. Should all information contained in vital records be public from the moment of creation? Should it be allowed to be sold? Doesn't that make us all, literally, a commodity? And doesn't being a commodity dehumanise us? We have to teach our children how to avoid pornography in the Internet, how to "self-censor"; should not we genealogists learn to apply that same sort of self-discipline when it comes to researching and publicly presenting personal information about living people? 

Never before in our history as a species have we had to grapple with this problem or ask these questions. These are exciting times indeed.

Love it. Absolutely love it.

©2013 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy