Monday, 30 January 2017 01:17

Threatening privacy — Genealogy website provides free info online


Would it be upsetting to learn that the public’s personal information — including age, birth month, family members, addresses and phone numbers — is accessible online for free?

FamilyTreeNow.com, a genealogy website that started in 2014, caused quite the stir on social media recently after Anna Brittain, of Birmingham, Alabama, found out about the site and tweeted instructions on how to remove one’s personal information.

By the end of the day, Brittain’s Twitter post on FamilyTreeNow had thousands of retweets.

“The site listed my 3- and 5-year-olds as ‘possible associates,’” Brittain told The Washington Post.

Because of so much traffic to the site, FamilyTreeNow’s profile-removal widget crashed, causing many manual requests through the website’s contact link.

FamilyTreeNow is just one “people-search” site in an elaborate network of online services that compile, store and sell personal data. Similar to the coveted Ancestry.com service, users can search for people by entering a first and last name followed by a state in which they’ve been associated with.

The service then begins collecting information as soon as the user views or interacts with the site, when a new account is created or when a user voluntarily interacts with third-party services also available through the site, according to FamilyTreeNow’s website.

Furthermore, the website collects information through Internet cookies and other technologies, which are used to acquire and store IP addresses, device identifiers, browser types, operating systems, mobile carriers and Internet service providers.

One former Pocatello resident who still has ties to the area, Kari Shaw, caught on to the craze via Facebook and said she expected it to be like every other genealogy website.

“But then I looked myself up on it and it had more info than I thought it would,” said Shaw, who now lives in Utah. “More info than I have ever seen on other genealogy websites, and I was scared anybody in the world could find out information on me and my family.”

The service does allow users to opt out by finding a small link buried in their privacy statement. After one more search of the name in question, users click the matching record and a red link appears that reads “Opt Out This Record.”

If completed successfully, a message appears indicating that the request is being processed and to allow up to 48 hours for completion.

Advertised on their website, FamilyTreeNow, wants to “create the best free genealogy site in the world. We want it to be super easy to use for new users yet powerful for experienced genealogists.”

It’s unclear whether opting-out removes individuals’ information from the website’s records entirely or simply conceals information from public searches. Though it might offer some peace of mind, that action alone won’t even put a dent into people’s online digital footprint.

A plethora of similar sites collect, save and disseminate personal information, including Spokeo, Whitepages.com and InstantCheckmate.

Most of these sites are backed by sizeable, shadowy data brokers without publicly accessible search features, which track the personal data of millions of people, according to The Atlantic.

In 2014, during the course of writing her book “Dragnet Nation,” journalist Julia Angwin tried to remove her information from the databases of every data broker and people-search engine she could find.

She came across more than 200 brokers, and fewer than half of them provided opt-out options at all, with several requiring her to submit identification.

Shaw said that she was aware of sites similar to FamilyTreeNow, adding that any attempt to remove the information would be futile.

“Yes, I know there are others, but finding them all feels impossible,” she said. “Everything is on the Internet now. Erasing all your info from the Internet would be very hard with all the social media and everything else out there.”

Bannock County Sheriff Lorin Nielsen said his wife has used genealogy websites in the past, but the information available is usually more than 100 years old so that you’re dealing with people who are deceased.

“That information makes me really concerned about the privacy issues of any citizen,” Nielsen said about the services offered by FamilyTreeNow. “An organized crime figure could potentially use this information to intimidate.”

He continued, “I know I would like to opt-out as would all of my officers and many other people would, too, because we do have a right to privacy.”

Few protections exist, however, that prevent publicly available information from being abused. A legion of potential threats could include a disgruntled employee searching for their former boss, a criminal seeking revenge on an arresting officer or a stalker trying to discover the whereabouts of their victim.

Idaho’s U.S. Marshal Brian Underwood said he is confident in how the Witness Protection Program, a division administered by the United States Department of Justice and operated by the United States Marshals Service, handles the identity of protected witnesses, adding that today’s information age is much different than when he was growing up.

“We do live in a time when everybody is pretty much an open book,” he said. “When I was in school, we didn’t even have cellphones. Now, high school kids can find out pretty much anything about anyone with the touch of a button.

Though FamilyTreeNow includes a disclaimer in its terms of service that advises users they cannot use the information obtained “to transmit any commercial, advertising or promotional materials, harass, offend, threaten, embarrass, or invade the privacy of any individual or entity,” there’s little these sites can do to enforce these guidelines.

Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and the author of “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” told The Atlantic that this creates a “Wild West” where brokers and people-search engines aren’t regulated.

Ironically, Saturday is National Data Privacy Day, and in recognition of the event, the Idaho Falls Bank of Commerce is urging consumers and business owners to take an active role in protecting their data.

“Our first priority is to protect our customers’ money and financial data,” said Tom Romrell, CEO and president of The Bank of Commerce. “We use a combination of safeguards to protect our customers’ information, and we encourage our customers to partner with us in that effort.”

The Bank of Commerce suggests tips to help ensure the safety of people’s personal information.

No. 1: Create complicated passwords. This means avoiding birthdays, pet names and simple passwords like 12345. It is also important to change passwords at least three times a year.

No. 2: Keep tabs on your accounts. Check account activity and online statements often, instead of waiting for the monthly statement. You are the first line of defense because you know right away if a transaction is fraudulent.

No. 3: Stay alert online. Be sure computers and mobile devices are equipped with up-to-date anti-virus and malware protection. Never give out your personal financial information in response to an unsolicited email, no matter how official it may seem.

No. 4: Protect your mobile device. Use the passcode lock on your smartphone and other devices. This will make it more difficult for thieves to access your information if your device is lost or stolen.

Scott Long is a detective with the Pocatello Police Department that specializes in cellphone and electronic forensics. When it comes to cyber security, he also recommends the use of good passwords that are updated periodically.

“And be sure to check the Wi-Fi network you’re connected to, and I recommend not connecting to guest Wi-Fi accounts,” he said. “You should be on a network that requires a password, and be sure to install a good firewall if you’re browsing from home.”

While these measures offer protection from cyber security threats, nothing can completely erase public information floating in some dark corner of the Internet.

Author : Shelbie Harris

Source : http://idahostatejournal.com/members/threatening-privacy-genealogy-website-provides-free-info-online/article_9e5caae1-9b41-521b-b436-82c0072cce53.html


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