Wow! It has been a day full of great posts from fellow genea-bloggers like Randy at Genea-Musings, Miriam at AnceStories and Janice at Cow Hampshire. They all comment on access to information, be it for dead people or living people. As important as the discussion of information access is, an equally important discussion deals with information useage.
Janice hit the nail on the head when she stated that, ". . .instead of focusing on what would actually ease the problem, both state and national government representatives have turned their attention to what they CAN do, even if it will have no or minimal impact."
So we see access to vital information for genealogy purposes clamped down or made difficult to get to instead of the real issues being dealt with. The same way customer service phone systems frustrate the hell out of me, as do some websites, you start saying to yourself, "it shouldn't be this difficult!" Companies are known for burying customer service contact numbers or ways to cancel their service within many layers of a web page or touch-tone prompts. I find the same hurdles when I deal with local, state and federal government websites that supposedly allow you access or should allow you access to genealogy data.
[Sidenote: And voice response phone systems? Don't get me started - customer service should never make the customer scream which is what often happens. I just try not to take it out on the human voice I eventually reach. I save my enmity and phone tricks for tele-marketers. (If you want to see what I mean, look at this video and then see the Judge Judy soundboard that was used.)]
Just as the website GetHuman has come out with all the "cheat codes" you need to navigate a company's touch-tone phone system, I think we need the same type of mechanism to get genealogy data you need. I hesitate to use the words "cheat codes" because of its implication of using the data for malevolent purposes. Again, it shouldn't be a difficult process.
Randy discusses looking for living people, whether they are relatives who might enable you to further your own research or to assist someone else in locating another person. I've been in similar situations over the past few years and the overriding questions I ask myself are:
1. How sensitive is the information?
2. Who wants the information?
3. For what purpose will the information be used?
4. If I contact someone who doesn't know me from Adam's housecoat, will I seem like a nut, an identity thief or a scammer?
Besides Anywho, 411.com, Google Search (both Web, Image, News and Blog), Ancestry People Search, I also use ZabaSearch. ZabaSearch was very controversial when it appeared several years ago since it culls public records such as court and probate filings, phone listings, etc. and gives "teaser" information. By that I mean it says, "there may be more records such as criminal, driving, etc." and links you to services that will perform a full-on background search for a fee.
In addition, many county-level courts allow you to search their dockets by plaintiff or defendant. Some good examples are Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois and San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco. I know these searches can be used for civil and probate matters but very often not for criminal matters.
Here are some situations I've been involved in where I had to ask myself those questions above:
My partner and I were involved in a difficult situation with an upstairs neighor that spiraled downwards into our receiving a "hate letter" under our door. Let's just say the two year battle involved someone posing as an attorney even though he was disbarred for client theft 22 years earlier and trying to intimidate us and much worse. We were treated like a couple of hayseeds who just arrived in town on the hay cart.
I used the Cook County court docket (many are now electronic and allow you to search by defendant or plaintiff name) and other resources to get to the root of vital information needed to win our court case. I was careful to only include the information in court documents or in confidential and privileged info discussion with our attorney. I had found out that this same "attorney" was notorious for filing defamation lawsuits and I wanted to avoid that by placing any information in a blog or personal website.
I will write more about this situation for the 40th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy over at Creative Gene entitled Living People Connections.
I was trying to find more information about the McCrickert line in my tree. It is a very uncommon last name and often misprinted as McCricket/McCrickett. My great aunt, Ethel McCrickert Hannan lived with my family during her final years and she was quite a character. But I never suspected that when she died in 2002 she still had a sister living in 2006.
All I had to go on was a very unusual first name: Dulcide. Using Ancestry's People Search and a few other of the above sites, I found out, too late and much to my disappointment, that she had passed away in February 2006. But a public record search gave me address information for someone who could possibly be her son.
Even though I had a working phone number for this gentleman, I opted to write a letter. I opened by stating who I was, how he and I were connected, and that this wasn't a scam. I also gave him my contact information he could use to make sure my inquiry was on the up and up. I will save the details for my post later this month, but let's just say I have been able to e-mail and speak with this long-lost cousin and have learned some important information about this part of my family.
This one was not related to a family member but a very close friend who was killed this past December 23rd in San Francisco when he was struck by a driver who then drove off. After not being able to contact him, and not knowing that he had died, I finally located his family's contact info here in Chicago using Anywho.
After the initial shock had worn off, I was contacted by a newspaper reporter with more details of the accident and some very basic information about the driver, who later turned herself into police. I was able to gather some information but since a common last name was involved, nothing was conclusive. Nor could the reporter publish information based on "guesstemation" since it could be libelous if incorrect, or even if correct.
So many questions remain unanswered about my friend Greg Anstett but luckily through the reporter and our other friends in San Francisco, we have been able to keep tabs on the case and will continue to do so.
Should I Be Doing This?
Getting back to Randy's initial question, I say, "Yes, I should be doing this." Everything I use for a people search is free and legally accessible. The ethical issues appear for me when I ponder how to use the data. While I am not necessarily a suspicious person, I have done some of the following searches which have provided me with valuable information:
- looked at the court docket for information on a potential landlord. I figure that he would run a credit check on me, why can't I see if he has had legal issues with tenants or even what type of tenants he has had to deal with in the past. Did I want to lock into a one-year lease where I could be miserable?
- researched the developer of my recently purchased condo. I used not only the court docket again, but the county's database of deed transfers, real estate purchases, etc. I wanted to know if the developer had ever gone belly-up on a project or if the developer was currently involved in construction/warranty litigation. Did I want to buy my first home and then have to pay for shoddy workmanship, etc?
Perhaps I am just a bit jaded and skeptical. But in today's modern world of identity thefts, corporate theft, and consumer scams, you can't be too careful. I use the same skeptical eye when looking at genealogy data. After all, my mother didn't raise any stupid children. Just two ugly ones and they're still at home.
Information and Identity Theft
Face it, information like technology is basically innocent in and of itself. The power comes through its use. I have been the victim of identity theft several times, and to varying degrees. The ways in which this crime happens are varied, I know that it is not through access to my great-grandmother's birth certificate. Part of living in a technologically advanced society and reaping the benefits of living the "online life" means having to deal with the bad side of technology useage as well.
Rather than live life as a panicked Luddite, I've opted to try to protect myself as best I can, both on-line and off-line. Would you get into a car without a seat belt? Would you grab a hot roasting pan without a pot holder? Would you spend time online if you didn't have a firewall or virus protection? All these questions get answered "No" when the user is an educated user.
Information = Education
As Kofi Annan has said, in a more progressive and forward-looking view towards knowledge: "Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”
The real power comes from how you use that knowledge. That power is in your hands, or let's say it should be if our legislators would stop preventing access to data that could not possibly be used for nefarious purposes. Researchers, be they genealogists, family historians or simply someone trying to make contact with another person, are educating themselves and often using that information to educate others.