Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Historical data, takedowns and fears of identity theft

Last Friday, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner  requested removal of historical data published on Irishgenealogy.ie, an initiative of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the part of the Irish government that "oversees the conservation, preservation, protection and presentation of Ireland's heritage and cultural assets". The database was part of the Civil Records search, which began as way to make information available from the 1901 and 1911 censuses. According to articles in the Irish Times and the Guardian, the Data Commissioner intervened over concerns that the Civil Records search contained information on living persons.

There is no proven data showing a link between the availability of historical and genealogy information on government websites and identity theft. The comments of Data Commissioner Hawkes calling the data a "treasure trove for people of evil intent" and a "very shocking" example of a public service failure are alarmist and misleading.

On the AHG website, it characterized the census digitization project as "an extremely valuable part of Irish heritage, and a resource for genealogists, local historians and scholars." Given the large population of persons of Irish ancestry around the world, the data and other sets like it held by the National Archives of Ireland are also of interest to persons not living in Ireland. Genealogy data and research often leads to historical tourism, so there is a connection to the Irish economy from the availability of this information. 

Irish citizens should ask that their government representatives have a reasonable dialogue on the issues and separate rhetoric from the facts. There are practical controls that can be put into place, on the persons who are able to access the information, to the ranges of available data in the Civil Records search.

In May 2014, the Federation of Genealogical Societies Records Preservation and Access Committee launched a Genealogists Declaration of Rights. The issues raised in Ireland touch on similar concerns for a balancing of access to information and privacy. While the Declaration of Rights is aimed at the US, the statements could easily apply to other locations.

Disclaimer - these views are my own. I have Irish ancestors on at least two branches of my family tree, one left Ireland around 1805 and the other arrived in the US by at least 1860. I have not made use of the information and resources of Irishgenealogy.ie, and until this story appeared in my newsfeed on Monday, I was not familiar with them. But I might want to make use of their services in the future, especially if AHG makes earlier historical data available. I am also not a specialist in Irish data protection law.

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