Ancestry.com: Identity theft takes on a whole new persona

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

I recently entered into a spirited email discussion with a “cousin” (seven generations removed) who was annoyed that my database of 35,000+ individuals related to Gov. John Webster by blood or marriage is classified “private” versus “public” on Ancestry.com. “You are a pain in the butt,” she whined. “Every time I turn around, I have to email you for info instead of just looking it up. You are really slowing me down.”

Boo hoo … though truthfully, I’d happily email her my entire database because she’s sent me a lot of 1800s family photos. However, she has an old computer and Ancestry.com was only able to upload such a large file after 2012 Family Tree Maker came out with cloud computing capabilities. (Ancestry.com and other Mormon-related corporate compilers use a lot of my work to feed their databases because I have the largest privately compiled Webster database in the U.S.)

This should put me in the catbird’s seat when it comes to people who want to download – in a minute, if possible – linkages I’ve spent 10-plus years establishing and proving, traveling across the United States to find little factoids hidden away in fading mimeographed family records. But that’s not why I keep it hidden away. It isn’t about intellectual property; it’s about legal identity.

Who am I? Depends who you ask these days

In addition to my role at IB, I am a professional genealogical detective (Glynn Patrick & Associates, LLC) who loves the intrigue of it. Recently a client, T.L. Woodmansee, received a detailed report taking his family back 14 generations. He later emailed, “What you did for me was to open a door that I never really thought about going through. As I studied my genealogy, I learned things about my ancestors which, in turn, made me learn things about myself” (shared with permission).

I’m not using this as a testimonial of my work, but rather as an illustration: Many clients report that learning about ancestral secrets is a game changer. Ancestry.com does not create trees; it uploads and links someone’s research to expand or add to existing trees. As a genealogical detective, whenever possible I check it as a clue only, not as an absolute fact, and then seek out first-source documentation like census, cemetery, and church records where the truth most often resides.

Even well-intentioned guesses about people’s birth, death, or marriage dates (no proof required) get uploaded on these membership genealogical sites and then are adopted hundreds of times before someone like me points out that this woman could not have married that man, who actually died five years before she was born. That’s the pitfall of instant genealogy and thinking one will learn their family’s history by paying a $350 annual membership fee to Ancestry.com to do a quick search.

But here’s the rub of sleuthing …

My own tree is meticulous and detailed. If, according to a death certificate, someone died of alcoholism, I put that in my file … which upsets descendants. Any piece of information is sacred, filed away for later verification. And so I’m the sort of person who would, and did, invest five years tracking a birth father – a hunt with many a blind alley before my mother finally capitulated and confessed a high school love affair with a college student. She then told me his name, address, and pertinent facts.

The missing link and I have “communicated” in the last 20 years since I’ve put a face and name to an outdated father-figure fantasy. He insists he’s not my father and yet refuses to take a DNA paternity cheek swab that I’ve offered to finance. In turn, I wrote a first-person story (“In Search of a Father’s Love”) about the experience of him rejecting me yet again – and then sold it to Guide Post Magazine for an April 1992 audience of 11 million readers. I thoughtfully provided him with an alias, though he likely didn’t appreciate the signed copy I sent to him at work.

To fully appreciate the genetic material from which I likely sprang, I then researched his family back 15-plus generations and neatly linked them all to my PRIVATE database. I felt no qualms about linking him to my mother and then adding 200 of his (my?) relatives to that tree. But lacking his admission or cheek swab, in my professional opinion one conversation with my mother (a very common “so-and-so said” acceptable source on Ancestry.com) is not sufficient proof to actually publish that information as fact.

What would happen if I changed the database to ‘Public’?

If my Ancestry.com tree went public, linkages to his mother and father and all of their ancestors would be visible as defined by their relationship to me. Lacking a death date, his first name would appear as “Living,” though his true surname would, of course, be revealed. If I connect those dots for Ancestry.com, any future researcher – say one of his (other?) three children searching on that family name – would find me. Pop goes the weasel. That could be a game changer for them.

Unraveling an ancestor’s life often is akin to solving a who-did-whom mystery. Fast-forward a couple of years, and I’m expecting an entire new practice of law, suing people around the common practice (today) of publishing undocumented ancestral links. The stakes are higher in this game than a television program or a slick ad campaign would have you believe. Can you imagine the ramifications of making my tree public? I can, so I’m not going to do it.

Meanwhile, my irritated online cousin will have to continually email me, or spring for a very large external disk drive.

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