2023.08.16 – Ethical Considerations in Genealogy: Navigating Privacy and Sensitivity in Research


By Pat Smart,
Copyright (c), 2023

Genealogy, the study of family ancestries and histories, has increased in popularity over the past few decades, the rise in DNA testing and online databases has only added to the popularity.  As exciting as it is to become a detective and piece together the mysteries of one’s past, it also comes with notable ethical responsibilities.  Diving into the past can unearth information that can be both unexpected and, in some cases, somewhat touchy in nature.  This makes it paramount for professional and amateur Genealogists alike to have empathy, respect, and discretion regarding their findings.

1.  Respect for Living Relatives and Ancestors

One must have respect. Our ancestors may have lived in the distant past.  Understanding the challenges they faced, the experiences, decisions and circumstances that shaped the family’s path gives us a deeper understanding and appreciation of our roots.

One must be aware that our living relatives can be deeply affected by revelations about their immediate ancestors. One must be careful to ascertain if information about legitimacies, marital infidelities, or involvement in criminal activities, even if they happened generations ago can stir up emotions and could harm familial relationships.  What one family member may find merely interesting others may find to be a stain on the family name.

 2. Privacy Concerns in the Digital Age

The digital age has revolutionized genealogical research.  Online databases allow for access to a massive amount of information, from census records, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and more.  While this easy access is a boon to research it raises concerns about privacy.

Many online platforms offer the option to build and display public family trees. It’s crucial to get living relatives’ permission before adding their personal details. It’s worth noting that any information stored online remains vulnerable to data breaches and could be used for identity theft.

3. DNA Testing: A double-edged Sword

DNA has been a game=changer for genealogists, it provides insights into ancestry and familial connections.  DNA Testing can be a minefield with ethical issues. Results can reveal unexpected relationships, such and unknown siblings or the truth about one’s biological parents.  Anyone considering a DNA test, for genealogical purposes or other vise, should be prepared for unexpected outcomes and possible emotional fallout.  As I have stated in previous articles, I was given a DNA test as a present.  As a result, I found two unknown daughters.  In my case, both my family and my daughters’ families were accepting of each other, and it opened relations between myself my original family and my new families.  In my case, DNA was a Godsend.  This is may not be true for others.

There are additional data privacy issues. What do companies do with the DNA data once they are in possession of the data? And what privacy policies are in place?  Could there be potential misuse of the genetic information?

4. Sharing Sensitive Information

When sharing exciting or dramatic discoveries, Genealogists must weigh the potential consequences.  Before sharing, it’s essential to ask:

A. Who may be harmed or upset by this information?

B. Is the discovery within the realm of public knowledge, or is it a private family matter?

C. How would you feel if the roles were reversed?  You need to have Empathy for others.

If any information could harm a person’s reputation or cause emotional distress it is best to keep it within the family or even within your personal records.  Consider the broader implications, particularly when sharing on a public platform or in group forums.

5. Recognizes Limits

It is vital for genealogists to understand the limits of what they can deduct from records.  One should not jump to conclusions based on a single piece of evidence or lack thereof.  Life is complex.  A birth record without a father’s name doesn’t automatically imply a particular storyline.  Here is another personal example.  I have been searching for my parent’s marriage license.  It wasn’t online, so I asked a relative, my aunt, if she had any information.  She gave me a city that she “thought” they were married in.  I contacted the county numerous times and I have never gotten back a response.  Could it be that the people were too busy to look in their records or was my aunt mistaken? Who knows.  Could this mean my parents never married?  I highly doubt it.  Recognizing these limits and approaching research with an open mind is both essential and ethical for accurate genealogy.


Genealogy offers a deeply personal journey into the past, it illuminates our connections to history and to our ancestors.  It is a journey that must be undertaken with caution and consideration.  Ethical genealogical practices protect not just the integrity of our research but also the feelings and reputations of those connected to our family tree.  As we uncover and record the stories of the past, we must do so with respect, empathy, and a profound understanding of the responsibilities we bear.

Pat Smart

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Post

2023.08.23 - A Grumpy Old Man's Take on Historical Context

A Grumpy Old Man’s Take on Historical ContextBy Pat Smart,Copyright (c), 20232023.08.23 Have you ever wondered why Great Uncle Bob always had a stash of canned beans in the cellar? Or why Grandma Maureen, in all her photos, had that look in her eyes, a mixture of determination and weariness? It is not just about having names and dates in your family tree. It’s the history, the backdrop, and the context! Understanding history ain’t just for school kids. Digging into your ancestors’ world is like adding color to an old black-and-white photo. Wars, migration, depressions – these weren’t just topics […]

Subscribe US Now