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Privacy Fears Raised Over Genealogy Application on Facebook

 

A genealogy application on Facebook has drawn regulatory scrutiny. Facebook, the largest social network in the world, has a popular genealogy application called We’re Related that allows people on Facebook to link to other family members who are also on Facebook. Now, European privacy regulators say We’re Related may be violating people’s privacy because it demands too much personal data.

We’re Related, which has 15 million active users a month, is a popular application in the genealogy community. Users are asked to “share” their profile information, photos and links to friends and family. The objective (in theory) is to “help” people find distant relatives on Facebook. In practice, such blanket approval by the user to release all personal information appears to override any stricter privacy settings that the user may have previously set on Facebook.

The privacy regulators argue that many people have been lulled into releasing all their personal information to the entire Facebook network. According to the regulators, this raises serious privacy issues that users (i.e. genealogists) need to understand and consider when using such family tree applications.

The European privacy regulators (officially known as the Article 29 Working Group after the European Commission legislation that created the agency) just released a landmark policy paper saying that they would be keeping a closer watch on websites that demand broad personal information. Although Facebook’s We’re Related application was singled out due to its popularity, many other social websites that collect genealogy and family information could potentially be at risk of running afoul of regulators in the future.

The rules of the game are still being written though as users themselves have rebelled when sites such as Facebook have attempted to use hard language to extract hard information from people (see Who Owns Your Online Genealogy Information). Major websites have learned from such episodes and become much more circumspect in their approach. Now, such websites often attempt to use soft language to justify extracting hard information from users.

According to the European regulators, many users of social websites have been lulled into accepting questionable privacy terms without fully considering the implications and consequences of their actions. The regulators, however, have not been so easily fooled and it is clear that social network sites containing genealogy data are now clearly on their radar screen. Genealogy data, by its nature, is full of personal information such as full names, dates of birth, addresses, etc..

The Article 29 Working Group is no lightweight organization. They have previously taken such large firms as Google to task over their privacy policies. The group is arguably the most advanced and proactive privacy regulator in the world. As such, this is obviously the opening salvo in a privacy battle that could have profound implications for any genealogy website that trades in family tree information. At the very least, it provides a cautionary tale for anyone who uses the We're Related application on Facebook.

See also: Regulator Finds Facebook has Serious Privacy Gaps

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