RootsTech 2015

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, March 2, 2015

What has genealogy got to do with identity theft?

Locally, there was another flurry of news articles about the need to protect individuals in the U.S. from identity theft. Whenever this happens, I start getting comments, usually anonymous, about genealogist's fears that putting their ancestral information online will compromise their identity and make them vulnerable to identity theft. Despite waves of comments about the "huge increases" in identity theft, I have yet to hear about a single survey or study linking having an online family tree to an increased risk of the so-called identity theft.

Notwithstanding this simple fact, I still get comments like the one I did yesterday expressing a reader's intent not to put his genealogy online and using words that prevented me from quoting or posting the comment. But then again today, I got another comment from my dear friend, Anonymous, that I could print:
Correct me if I'm wrong because I also worry about this but have decided to use online genealogy , if someone really wants to get your identity its not that hard all they have to do is what everyone searching for their roots do and look up cencus records, birth records, obituaries, etc old newspapers wedding and birth announcements etc. Is there really anyway to keep information from ending up on line and if you don't put your information up whats to stop a family member also working on family tree? In order to use your information to get into your bank they would have to know were you bank first and you don't put that information on genealogy trees I can see someone maybe trying to open a new account with some of information you share but they would still need a social security number for that wouldn't they and that is not something you'd post on your tree,
I made no attempt to correct either spelling or grammar. In this case, Anonymous is certainly right. There is a disconnect between the issue of identity theft, however it is defined, and the fact that I have common ancestral information online. The simple fact is I share ancestral information with hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. I have investigated this issue over and over again during the past few years and cannot find one iota of evidence that online genealogical information can be used to establish a false identity. Most genealogists are blissfully unaware of the huge amount of personal information about them and their lives that is already online and has nothing at all to do with genealogy. In fact, few genealogists would know where to go to find out this very personal information.

Let me give a very simple example, mentioned above by Anonymous: Social Security numbers. Why would you or anyone think that your social security number is not readily available to anyone who cares to know? Think about it. You have to use it to file income taxes, obtain a driver's license, obtain insurance, get medical help, enroll in school, apply for a loan and almost anything else in our society that requires identification. I had to present my social security card, the original card, to get a driver's license in Utah. What was there to keep the clerk who was processing my license from copying my number and using it to "steal my identity?" Nothing. My own number was once my student number at the University of Utah for seven years. It was also my Army ID number for eight years. 

Let me start with a simple fact. There is no consistent or generally accepted definition of the term "identity theft." When I speak of identity theft, what am I talking about? What do you think it is? Are we talking about losing a credit card or about someone taking out a loan in my name? Both of these actions are considered identity theft. For your information, the National Crime Victimization Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice of the United States, includes three general types of incidents in its definition of identity theft:
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of an existing account
  • unauthorized use or attempted use of personal information to open a new account
  • misuse of personal information for a fraudulent purpose.
By the way, the latest statistics for identity theft date from 2012. Here is a more specific definition of identity theft from the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics
Identity theft is the attempted or successful misuse of an existing account, such as a debit or credit card account, the misuse of personal information to open a new account, or the misuse of personal information for other fraudulent purposes, such as obtaining government benefits or providing false information to police during a crime or traffic stop.
Here is a further continuation of the issue from the same report:
In 2012, the misuse or attempted misuse of an existing account was the most common type of identity theft — experienced by 15.3 million people. An estimated 7.7 million people reported the fraudulent use of a credit card and 7.5 million reported the fraudulent use of a bank account such as a debit, checking or savings account. Another 1.1 million persons had their information misused to open a new account, and about 833,600 persons had their information misused for other fraudulent purposes. 
The most common way victims discovered the identity theft in 2012 was when a financial institution contacted them about suspicious activity on an account. About 2 out of 3 victims did not know how the offender obtained their information, and 9 out of 10 did not know anything about the identity of the offender.
Can you see any connection between this and the fear that putting your genealogical data online will compromise your identity?  Now let me ask a very simple question. How many of you have insisted on using a newly issued credit card with an encrypted micro-chip in all your transactions? We have the technology to prevent nearly all of the current credit card issues, but do not use them. If you do not know what is involved in the new credit card technology, see EMV smart chips which are used throughout the world, except in the U.S.

When will we stop hearing about identity theft? Probably never. When will credit cards stop becoming so much of an issue? When the EMV standard is adopted. Here is the latest:

That will change as the first major milestone in EMV deployment occurs on October 1, 2015. While it’s not a hard cutoff, that date is being referred to as when liability shifts for the American credit card industry. Starting in October, the least technologically equipped party will pay the cost of fraudulent transactions. If a retailer has an EMV compatible terminal, but the bank doesn’t issue an EMV compatible card, then the bank is responsible for the cost of fraud. However, if the cardholder has an EMV compatible card and the retailer hasn’t upgraded its systems, then the retailer will be liable.Read more:
What has this to do with genealogy? Not much.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Comments on Becoming an Excellent Genealogist -- Chapter Fifteen

This is an ongoing series of chapter by chapter comments on the book,

Meyerink, Kory L., Tristan Tolman, and Linda K. Gulbrandsen. Becoming an Excellent Genealogist: Essays on Professional Research Skills. [Salt Lake City, Utah]: ICAPGen, 2012.

I am now commenting on Chapter 15: "Jurisdictions: Who Created the Record?" by Loretta Evans, AG.

Whether the analogy is the one used by the author of this chapter, Russian dolls, or my own, a stack of pancakes, the idea is the same. Records about individuals and families are kept at various geographic levels of the entities making those records. The concept of jurisdiction is not an easy one for most people to understand. The word is used in a very general sense to include all sorts of divisions of all sorts of organizations. This chapter of the book contains a list of examples of the types of records created by different jurisdictions of government, churches, fraternal organizations, social organizations, schools, businesses and many others.

Two of the largest online resources for genealogists, the FamilySearch Catalog and the Research Wiki are organized to reflect the real-world way records are located. If you begin a search in either resource by entering a place name, you will see a list of available records for that place organized by category. You can also see links to any enclosed area where additional records may be kept. The complicating factor, of course, is the that records tend to move. Older records may stay in the place where they are created, but may also be moved to larger archives, libraries or other repositories. Records may also be created on a local level, such as a death certificate in the United States, but maintained on a state level.

There are really two main questions to ask about records:

  • Where were the records created originally?
  • Where are the records located today?

In both cases, it is implicit in the process of researching your ancestors that you determine an exact location where an event occurred in the individual's life. I have been teaching a class on research beginning this past week, and it has become abundantly clear that finding records about an ancestor absolutely requires knowing an exact location where an event occurred. It is all too easy to choose the wrong person from those with similar names and dates, unless you are extremely careful in recording the places where each event identified occurred.

Knowledge of the place of an event allows you to then identify the jurisdictions of the various record keeping organizations or entities that may have created records pertaining to your ancestor.


If you are researching back on a particular line, you must move from place to place. You cannot begin a search for records until you identify the next level of places. General locations such as "Ohio" or "Prussia" are absolutely useless. This is especially true because jurisdictions change over time. The date something happened can be approximate, but the place has to be exact.

How exact is exact? In many cases, you may have to identify the house where the family lived. This is true whenever there are a number of people with the same or similar names living in the same area. Some countries where this is the common rule include Wales, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and other areas where similar names are found in abundance.

What happens if you find a pedigree and none of the places where events occurred are listed? This is really common when people list their "ancestral royalty." It is also common on a very localized level with records that came from family Bibles. In each case, the list is nothing more than a suggestion to start doing research. As I have said many times previously, when copying starts, genealogy ends. When you start copying dates and names out of a book, off of a family tree or other similar source without verifying the information, you have left reality behind and are now in fantasy land.

This chapter seems rather simple, but in fact, it is the core concept of genealogical research and cannot be emphasized too much or too many times.

You may wish to review some of the preceding chapters:

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Digitizing Genealogy -- Scanners vs. Cameras

If the entire world is buying smartphones and cell phones with cameras, why are we worried about separate cameras or even flatbed scanners at all? Can't we just take a photograph of our documents with our phone and leave it at that. Why bother with a bulky, less-than-portable, scanner? If scanners are needed, why do the FamilySearch Document Acquisition people use cameras? Why have cameras been used for archiving since about 1938? Why don't they just scan the documents?

The answers to all these questions involve complex issues, some practical, some economical, and some chiefly political in nature. The answers also involve the evolution of technology and the rate at which technological changes are adopted by archivists and document conservators.

To start this particular discussion, I need to show three images. One, obtained by a camera and then developed as a microfilm image and subsequently digitized, the second, an image altered by modern image enhancement techniques, and the third taken by a modern digital camera directly from a document.

Before presenting the three examples, I need to explain what you are going to see. Document reproduction (and all photographic processes) depend on the quality of the physical document. Old documents are seldom in pristine condition and are subject to a variety of natural forces that may destroy the original documents and make them unreadable: fires, floods, mold, insects, chemical changes, rough handling, and many more. Original reflective light photography could do very little to improve the readability of the original document. Microfilm images were often unreadable. The advent of digital imagery and the technology involved has developed ways to restore unreadable images and even reveal images that are invisible to the naked eye. But much of this image enhancement technology depends on access to the original documents. There is only so much that can be done to enhance a poor microfilm image of an unreadable document. In addition, if the original document is unreadable, there are both temporal and economic issues the arise if document restoration techniques are to be used. More about this later on in this post and the series.

Here is the first image without any particular photographic enhancement. This is a copy of a U.S. Census record directly from the original documents as shown on;

You may have to click on the image to see any detail. Here is a screenshot of the section of the document pertaining to my Great-grandfather, Henry Martin Tanner:

Again, you may need to click on the document to see the detail.

Here is the same page of the same U.S. Census record from

Here is a screenshot of the two documents side by side:

You might not be able to tell, but the second image, from, has the contrast enhanced to show more detail. Both are fairly good images, but the second one probably shows more detail than than the first even though it appears darker.

Here is a current digitized image from The format of the way the image was taken reveals that it was taken directly by a digital camera. This is a sample of the Tennessee, Freedmen's Bureau Field Office Records, 1865 - 1872 from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Here is an enlarged section of this same Tennessee document:

You can see that the quality of the digital image is still very good even with some bleed through from the backside of the document.

The point here is that the limitations of the original often eclipse the sophistication of the technology and that there is little that can be done to enhance an image even with modern technology because of time and cost constraints. Would a modern scanner produce a better image? Yes, likely, but the problem is that the originals are not in a place nor do they have the format that would lend itself to using some type of scanner.

Most of the discussions about making a comparison between using a scanner versus using a camera revolve around the issue of resolution. Cheap scanners could make a higher resolution image than a cheap camera. Archive quality digital cameras were extremely expensive. The main issue was and still is, the resolution of the image. It was not until relatively recently that consumer or prosumer digital cameras achieved an acceptable resolution. I will have a lot more to say about the technical aspects of making digital images in successive posts.

Here are some the basic considerations, pro and con, between using a camera and a scanner:

Pros for using a camera:

  • Easy to set up.
  • Relatively fast imaging.
  • Quick transfer of images to a computer or storage device.
  • Can be used with very large documents.
  • More likely to be allowed by a record repository.

Cons for a camera:

  • The cost of a good quality camera is considerably more than the cost of a good quality scanner.
  • Depending on the digitizing requirements, additional equipment, such as a camera stand and lights might be necessary. 
  • Maintaining the proper focus across the entire image may be difficult, i.e. keeping the document flat with damaging the document. 

Pros for using a scanner:

  • High quality images.
  • Avoids much of the bleed-through on pages.
  • Relatively inexpensive for good quality.

Cons for a scanner:

  • Bulky, cannot be used at all in some document locations.
  • Much slower than a camera.
  • Original documents may be injured in the scanning process.
  • Some documents cannot fit on the scanning bed and would have to be scanned in sections.
  • Not as frequently allowed by record repositories.

One of the most common discussions about the use of scanners and/or cameras revolve around the distinction between scanning a photo and scanning text (i.e. documents without pictures). In this series, I hope to show that digital cameras have evolved to the point where they are more than just an alternative to scanners, but now have become the most effective tool for genealogists and archivists of all kinds.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Famberry launches “Famberry Search” & GEDCOM Upload

The private collaborative family tree builder program,, has made the following announcement:
London, England (February 27th, 2015) Famberry (, the private collaborative family tree builder, is please to announce the release of “Famberry Search”, an interactive search facility that uses key indicators from your family tree to give you the most relevant search results and an opportunity to connect with related family. The more you add to your family tree the better the Famberry Search results. 
In addition to the standard checks for matches as you grow your family tree on Famberry, the Famberry Search facility will help users who have hit brick walls with certain names and want to check for any other families that have connections to specific names.

As part of the announcement Famberry is also releasing GEDCOM import and export facilities to allow users to transfer family tree information from their private applications to the sharable family tree environment of Famberry.
This seems to be a concept that is getting more popular, the idea of having a relatively simple family tree structure that allows collaboration and connectivity. I think the die-hard genealogists are not going to be attracted to this type of program as their primary database, but it could be very attractive for families not entirely embroiled in family history, not as a substitute for more detail, but as an adjunct.

GEDCOM or not to GEDCOM, that is the question

My apologies to Shakespeare, but there is a real issue over the now ancient GEDCOM standard. I liken it to those undersized spare tires that come with many modern cars; useful in an emergency but lethal if used too long or too much. It is sort of in the category of the venerable Personal Ancestral File program. It still has adherents and almost fanatical defenders. For me, of course, this journey down memory lane reminds me of the "good ole' times" when we were embroiled in the issues of genealogical data standards. It looks like to me that the partnerships being forged between the larger genealogy companies and the concomitant agreements concerning the APIs back and forth, have predictably obviated the need for a separate genealogical standard. This is especially true due to the background of discussion about the ability to move data from one online tree program to another.

At a very practical level, I consider the use of GEDCOM files to transfer the data from one large family tree to another, to be the point at which the family history industry moves decisively away from source-based reality into the never-never land of imaginary pedigrees. Uploading a huge unsourced family file into the Family Tree, for example, would be a disaster for the descendants of all those whose ancestors have now been duplicated. Notwithstanding my fear of this eventuality, I still hear a constant background of noise about the need to upload an entire file and using the GEDCOM file format is presently the only way this is possible.

But using the GEDCOM format is like taking photos through a screen door. You get some of the details and lose others. Individual programs have addressed the need to move the entire data set from one computer to another, but the idea of moving an entire file from one program to another has languished. So here go the pros and cons of GEDCOM as I see them today (February, 2015).

Before I get to the list, I have a comment about large genealogical data files. I have seen files that contain well over 100,000 individuals and some that have grown much larger than that. I am certain that people with such huge files have either spent their entire lives adding people one by one or have copied huge amounts of data from other files. Do you realize that if you had 100,000 people in your file, it would take over 1600 hours just to look at each person for a maximum of one minute? Enough said on that topic for this post.


  • GEDCOM is presently the only practical way to move a large genealogy database from one program to another. There are limited methods of transferring and synchronizing data between two programs, especially when those two programs are owned by the same company such as an online family tree and the supporting desktop program, but there is no other way to move an entire file from two unrelated programs.
  • For basic data fields, GEDCOM does an very good job of preserving the existing file structure.
  • It is relatively easy to understand and export a GEDCOM file and then import the file into another supporting program. 
  • GEDCOM exports and imports are still supported by the majority of genealogical database programs on all computer platforms and operating systems.
  • GEDCOM has been a way to maintain reasonable data correspondence between different program. 


  • Depending on the program, a considerable amount of the existing file data may be lost in the transfer process since there are fields and types of media that GEDCOM could, but does not usually support depending on the program. For example, source documentation in Personal Ancestral File does not transfer well into almost all other programs. 
  • Using GEDCOM facilitates the transfer of large, unsupported, unsourced and inaccurate data files. Much of the proliferation of inadequately sourced, online family trees is a result of the use of exporting and importing GEDCOM files.
  • The need to support the GEDCOM standard has imposed arbitrary limits on the way genealogical information is stored and disseminated. 
  • Adding GEDCOM files to an existing family tree may create a large number of duplicates. For this reason, FamilySearch (the organization that originated GEDCOM) now requires uploads to be examined one person at a time and current implementations of the process in the Family Tree does not support notes, sources or multimedia. 

These lists are not exhaustive, I intended them to merely indicate the nature of the problems. I am certain that as time passes, there will be ways to exchange data between two online family trees in unrelated websites, either directly or through the mediation of a third party program.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

31 Sessions of RootsTech 2015 now online

You need to check back on the website for the latest postings of newly added recorded classes from the Conference. There are now 31 sessions online.

If you need a place to start. Watch Ron Tanner.

Utah Genealogical Association DNA Special Interest Group

I received the following notice from the Utah Genealogical Association (UGA). Note that this invitation is for MEMBERS ONLY. Here is the specific information about the meeting:
You are invited to our members-only DNA Special Intrest Group on Wednesday, Mar 4, 2015 at 7:00 PM MST If you are attending in person:  The meeting will be held at the Draper Library, 1136 Pioneer Road, Draper (end of blue line TRAX) from 7:00 pm to 8:45 pm.  A presentation and Q&A will take place from 7:00 to 7:45 and will be followed by a hands-on session with the experts from 7:45 to 8:45 pm.  Please bring your laptop and DNA research questions with you. If you are unable to attend in person:  You may register for the presentation portion of the meeting which will be broadcast via GoToWebinar® from 7:00 to 7:45 pm MST.  You may register here:  After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.  Seating is limited; however, it will be recorded and saved behind the member's wall on the UGA website for future viewing if you are unable to join.

You may wish to join UGA and get in on this special opportunity. Membership is open to anyone, even those living outside of Utah. Here is a quote from the UGA website explaining about the organization:
UGA Mission Statement
The Utah Genealogical Association provides genealogical information, sources and education through personal instruction and published media on state, national and international family history topics, while promoting high standards and ethical practices. 
UGA Information
The Utah Genealogical Association was formally organized on September 25, 1971, and chartered on December 1, 1971, by the State of Utah as a nonprofit educational organization. The Association's interests are worldwide while still providing specific materials of interest relating to Utah. It is not affiliated with any religious or political organization. 
The Association is governed by an Executive Committee comprised of the President, 1st Vice-President, and 2nd Vice-President plus a Board of Governors. Members of the Board are elected by the general membership of the Association and serve for a period of three years. 
In addition, dozens of volunteers serve on various committees, staff booths at conferences, and work behind the scenes to assure the membership a vibrant, collegial, and enjoyable Association. 
The Association publishes Crossroads, a quarterly journal of general interest in the field of genealogy and family history. The journal is sent to the general membership of the Association and is also available to the membership in an electronic edition on this website. 
Association members can share information on specific surnames through our Surname Research page. We sponsor an annual meeting wherein outstanding service and accomplishments are recognized and awarded. 
Also available to members is the opportunity to participate in a monthly "virtual chapter" meeting wherein experts in various aspects of genealogy and family history make hour-long presentations on their areas of expertise. These presentations are then archived for member review and access at any time.
Click here to find out about becoming a member.