The internet knows a lot about you. Now what?

A recently trending topic encourages internet users to go to Family Tree Now and “OPT OUT,” in hope of ensuring your personal information isn’t TOO accessible. But this is at best a feeble attempt at protecting the (quickly fading) idea of privacy.


Family Tree Now isn’t a new thing. Many websites connect eager googlers with personal information about pretty much anyone with a pulse. Spokeo, PeekYou, 411, Spock, TruthFinder, WhitePages, ZabaSearch, PeopleFinders… And the list goes on. Most of these websites provide a sample of the details they have to dish, enticing people to dole out $24.95 to learn more, but Family Tree Now seems to be making this data a bit more public facing. While most of these websites provide users with the option to opt out, the pursuit of protecting your personal information may be a futile task.

Websites like Family Tree Now basically act like a file cabinet filled with carbon copies–You may get rid of a file, but the original is still publically available and searchable. Online web pages, like Spokeo and Family Tree Now, provide a “service” by pulling together a selection of publically available records and information. This is the same information that is also available through online behavioral advertising (OBA) services. The big difference between the public-facing Family Tree Now and OBA services is that Family Tree Now focuses on making that info available to members of the public, while OBA services are generally intended for marketing agencies who want to promote a product or service they offer to a specific group of people.

But there’s more going on than just a bunch of organizations packaging publically available material. We add data via our interactions over social media–the things we post to Twitter, the keywords we search for–any online activity, provides additional data for use. (Don’t believe me? If you’re a google user, check this out.) This is likely what’s going on with Family Tree Now. They may claim to be a free service, but those who interact with this service are asked to provide more information. For example, in order to take advantage of the service, you are asked to “build” your own family tree, providing data about your relatives.


Basically, Family Tree Now is one example of a system that you “pay” for with information. Once you add your information into the system (verifying your name and birthdate, adding information about family members), you sort of sign away your rights to that information. It’s written right there in their terms and conditions

“…all material published on or accessible through the Applications, including, but not limited to text, photographs, video, graphics, music, images, animations, audio, “applets” incorporated into the software data, sounds, messages, comments, ratings, and other materials on the Applications (together “Content”) is owned by…”

By providing information to the internet, (unless it is otherwise stated or arranged, i.e. if you are actually paying for use of a protected service), you give the internet license to use your information as indicated in whatever terms and conditions apply. So things like Facebook may seem to be a nice, free place to store photos, but in exchange for the storage space, we pay by giving up a little bit of our privacy.

Sure, you could go to each of these websites and opt out. You could refrain from using any free online service to post or share materials. But that doesn’t stop other similar pages from taking advantage of the cache of information already publically available and accessible. So go ahead and opt out of Family Tree Now—but remember they’re just a very small piece of the puzzle, and all that data you are so desperately trying to keep private–it’s still there. Publically available and searchable.

But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. First off, that publically available data has always been there. Maybe people are thinking of new, creative ways to take advantage of the information and make some money on the way, but the actual availability of it isn’t new. And so far we haven’t all had our identity stolen (as far as we know at least). Instead of frantically running to every corner of the internet to “opt out,” perhaps it’s time to adjust our concept of privacy, updating it to something a little more practical and fitting for the age of big data, user analytics, and tech-fueled transparency.

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