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Genealogy Websites: Beneficial or Invasive?

UNITED STATES  --  Genealogy websites often promise to bring families closer together, but what does this mean for information that is available to the public?

Jennifer Stagg has the story about how the sites get the information so easily available just by entering a first name, last name, and state of residence.

"Seeing all that information about me in one spot at one time was very scary," said cyber security expert Andrew Hacker, talking about a site that claims to offer free family tree information.

What makes FamilyTreeNow.com different from other genealogy sites is its Possible Connections section. This is an area where people like an ex-brother-in-law or former friend could appear, along with information like current and former home addresses.

"Having all of the different addresses that I've lived since I was a kid, you know, that's not information that's available to anyone, and shouldn't be," said Hacker.

He says some of this information comes from public records like the ones found in county courthouses, but other details are likely obtained from data brokers--companies that legally collect and sell consumer information.

The website's privacy policy states it collects info from "trusted third parties," but does not disclose who they are.

FamilyTreeNow.com also claims to gather information when users interact with features on the website.

"Births, marriages, deaths, that's pretty much what genealogy is built on," said Carolyn Tolman, a genealogist with Legacy Tree in Salt Lake City, which has no affiliation with FamilyTreeNow.com.

"Our website is not a database for people to log in and search," she said. "We are a research company and we use other people's data bases such as myheritage.com, ancestry.com, familysearch.org."

One of Legacy Tree's senior researchers, Paul Woodbury, says there are hundreds of websites like familytreenow.com.

"Is it a genealogy website? Yes, it provides genealogical information but it is a little bit deceiving in that the first thing it is providing is information on living people," said Woodbury.

He also says this is not necessarily a bad thing.

"That could be very helpful in situations like probate and forensic genealogy research."

Some of Woodbury's work involves finding long lost family members for legal and personal reasons. He says FamilyTreeNow is not the only site that offers detailed information on the living, but others require subscriptions and privacy agreements, which almost creates a paper trail.

"Some of those databases even require specific credentials in order to utilize," he said. "FamilyTreeNow is readily available to anyone who wants to access it."

In this case, there is no way to trace who is looking up this information.

"I would not be opposed to greater regulation, especially for these websites that are putting it all out there," said Tolman.

FamilyTreeNow does have an option for records to be removed.