Some people are rushing to remove their names from genealogy website FamilyTreeNow.com. Type in a name and state, and the site can reveal past and current home addresses, birth year, and possible personal connections such as family members, roommates, and exes—all for free.
The site aims to give people access to their own history, but some are worried about the access it gives others. Having all the information in one place seems to open the door for stalkers, identity thieves, and more.
Seeing easy-to-find data in one place might be disconcerting, but it shouldn’t be surprising, says Eva Velasquez, CEO and president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. FamilyTreeNow.com doesn’t dig through illegal files—it simply gathers information that’s already publicly available on the Internet. “While that might cause feelings of ‘Big Brother’ alarm, it shouldn’t,” says Velasquez. “The information is public record, whether due to government regulation or your voluntary participation.”
Other genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com have all that same information on file. Sure, they have fees, but a bit of red tape won’t stop anyone who’s determined enough, says Albert Gidari, director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. “People intent on identity theft or harassment aren’t going to be deterred by a $12.99 price tag to pull a record from any other site,” he says, “and they’re not deterred from spending another half hour looking through records.”
Anyone who’s concerned can opt out of FamilyTreeNow.com’s records. You’ll need to go through the process a few times if there are multiple files on you, but it could be worth the peace of mind. Also, you can breathe easier about your kids’ privacy, because the site avoids collecting information from children under 18.
If nothing else, the alarm over FamilyTreeNow.com should be a simple lesson about how impossible privacy can be, says Gidari. Removing every public record is impossible, but Gidari recommends taking steps like signing up for “do not call” lists and opting out of Google Analytics. “Everyone who sees that should stop and think about what they share, who they share it with, and what protections they have when they share it,” he says. “The less you share, the better.”