Legal Affairs

GEDmatch Implements Required Opt-In for Law Enforcement Matching

GEDmatch is an open data personal genomics database and genealogy website founded in 2010 by Curtis Rogers and John Olson. Its main purpose is to help “amateur and professional researchers and genealogists,” including adoptees searching for birth parents. However, it recently has also become “the de facto DNA and genealogy database for all of law enforcement,” according to The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang.

GEDmatch recently gained a lot of publicity after it was used by law enforcement officials to identify a suspect in the Golden State Killer case in California. Other law enforcement agencies started using GEDmatch for violent crimes, making it one of the most powerful tools available for identifying “cold case” criminals.

Sadly, the same site also has generated a lot of controversy involving the lack of privacy of personal DNA information, both for the people who uploaded their own DNA data and especially for the relatives of the uploaders whose DNA information also was included without their permission and usually without their knowledge. Such blatant disregard for personal privacy may be a violation of privacy laws in many countries.

The GEDmatch owners have now tightened the web site’s rules on privacy. The result is expected to make it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to find suspects.

Republishing Obituaries: Is it Piracy?

Who owns the copyrights of obituaries? A recent court case in Canada may have far-reaching implications for genealogists in many countries. While the recent court case applies only to Canada, similar copyright issues exist in many other countries.

Thomson v. Afterlife Network Inc., 2019 FC 545, is a (Canadian) Federal Court decision in which the Court considers the existence of copyright in obituaries used in an e-commerce context.

The case involves a class action lawsuit claiming that posted obituaries and photographs posted in local funeral home web sites were copied and republished by the plaintiff and other class members without the permission of the true copyright holders. The suit then claims that the defendant infringed the copyright and the moral rights of the class members.

Delaware may Increase the Embargo Periods for Birth, Marriage, and Death Records

The following article was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

As previously reported in the IAJGS Records Access Alert, a bill before the Delaware House will increase the embargo periods for birth marriage and death records. On May 7, it was amended and passed by House. The embargo periods were further extended. The bill now would extend embargo periods to:

  • Birth from 72 years to 100 years
  • Marriage from 40 to 70 years an
  • Death records from 40 to 50 years

The original bill maybe accessed at: https://legis.delaware.gov/BillDetail/47308.

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Archivist Accused of Stealing Rare Books

A 17th century Geneva Bible was one of the hundreds of rare books authorities said were stolen from a Pittsburgh library as part of a 20-year-long theft scheme, is back home. The Bible, published in 1615, was traced to the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, said FBI agent Robert Jones.

It was among more than 300 rare books, maps, plate books, atlases and more that were discovered missing from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh last year. A former archivist at the library and a rare book dealer are accused of stealing books valued at more than $8 million

You can read more about this theft in an article by Patty Coller in the WKBN News web site at: http://bit.ly/2IK796j.

Ancestry.com Sued for ‘Misleading’ Customers About DNA Data

Genealogy information provider Ancestry.com has a “longstanding practice” of failing to get sufficient informed consent agreements from customers who submit medical and DNA information, a new lawsuit alleges.

Lori Collett sued the Utah-based company’s subsidiaries—Ancestry.com DNA LLC and Ancestry.com Inc.—for allegedly “misleading and deceiving patients in California and across the country about what Ancestry was actually doing with their DNA.”

Bloomberg news has a brief radio report about the lawsuit at http://bit.ly/2VAn7Gt.

Reclaim the Records Launches its Biggest Genealogy-Related Lawsuit Ever

Reclaim The Records seeks the first-ever public access to 1.6 million death certificates for New Yorkers who died between 1949-1968 and asks court to overturn recently-enacted restrictions on access.

You can read the full announcement at: http://bit.ly/2GtMCiO.

Has Investigative Genealogy Become the Wild, Wild West?

The marriage of genealogy and DNA being used to solve “cold case” crimes is receiving a lot of publicity these days. On the one hand, it is an excellent tool for solving murders and other violent crimes. On the other hand, there are concerns about personal privacy, government “Big Brother” privacy issues, abuse by police and others that have access to the various databases, and about simple human errors that can cause innocent people to be incarcerated or even executed.

NOTE: Click here to read about one recent example of an innocent man being arrested and incarcerated because of mistaken identity in a DNA test. Luckily, in this case, the error was discovered by a suspicious public defender and the innocent man was released from custody within a few days. However, will other mistaken identity cases be rectified so quickly?

Is DNA Evidence Reliable?

DNA has become a major tool for use by police in solving cold cases of murder and other violent crimes. In the past year, about 50 cold cases have been solved nationwide using public genealogy websites. But is this evidence alone reliable?

James H. Manahan, J.D., has written an article in the Lake County (Minnesota) News-Chronicle that tells why DNA evidence alone can be misleading. Manahan cautions that DNA is a great tool but also must always be used in conjunction with old-fashioned police work.

Reclaim The Records Wins Again! New York State Department of Health Index to Marriages to Become Available to the Public.

The following is a short extract from the Reclaim the Records web site:

GENEALOGISTS WIN IN COURT!

Index to millions of New York marriage records reclaimed!

Non-profit organization Reclaim The Records wins our fourth Freedom of Information lawsuit, this time for the 1966-2017 New York State marriage index

Greetings from Reclaim The Records! We’re that scrappy little activist group of genealogists, historians, journalists, and open government advocates, fighting for better public access to government-held genealogical and historical documents. And today, we’re pleased to inform you that we just won our fourth lawsuit! We fought the New York State Department of Health (NYS DOH) for the index to marriages performed in the state of New York post-1965, and after seven months, a judge has now ruled in our favor.

Is That Book Still Under Copyright?

Genealogists use old books more often than most other people. Indeed, we also want to take excerpts from an old book and publish those excerpts as part of our own family’s genealogy. However, is that legal? Does the book still enjoy copyright protection?

Under U.S. laws, the answer is simple for books published prior to 1924: the book is now in the public domain (not copyrighted). For books, films, and other works published in 1924 or later, however, the question quickly becomes complicated.

Anything published in 1924 will remain under copyright until the year 2020, anything published in 1925 will remain under copyright until the year 2021, and so on.

U.S. Supreme Court Expands Scope of Census Citizenship Question Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that it is expanding the scope of the case against the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, agreeing to decide whether the move violated the Constitution.

The move comes after a federal judge in California ruled earlier this month that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose agency oversees the census, violated the Constitution’s Enumeration Clause.

MuckRock Provides a State-By-State Look at Your Public Records Laws

These are laws that strongly affect genealogists. Many states are locking up public domain birth, marriage, and death records under the bogus claim of “preventing identity theft.” What’s the odds that an identity thief wants to use the personal information of my grandmother who died more than 60 years ago? Does anyone believe a thief can obtain a loan or a credit card in her name?

In any case, MuckRock tracks the laws of 50 states plus Washington D.C., all with different statutes, exemptions, and limitations that dictate what you can get from your state and local agencies. With the rules of access differing across the board, MuckRock provides an easy way to keep track of them all through our interactive database showcasing the best, the worst, and the confusing parts of state records law.

MuckRock is available at: https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2019/mar/08/sw-state-guide.

Second Federal Court Strikes Citizenship Question From 2020 Census

This has been a see-saw battle. For the second time, a Federal court blocked a controversial citizenship question from the 2020 census

Judge Richard Seeborg wrote that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “ignored” federal law when he added the question. Seeborg cited evidence he said shows the question lowers self-response rates among immigrants and non-citizens.

Wikimedia Apologizes for Taking Historical Photos from Israeli Archives without Permission

This should serve as reminder to all of us that information and pictures available to the public on the World Wide Web are not to be taken and republished elsewhere without permission. Yes, many people do that, including some large organizations such as the nonprofit Wikimedia.org. But that doesn’t mean that republishing anything elsewhere is legal.

NOTE: Wikimedia is the parent organization of Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, WikiNews, and several other major web sites.

After complaints were made about Wikimedia’s use of images taken from the Israeli Archives and republished on its own web site, Wikimedia Israel has announced it will collaborate with the Association of Israeli Archivists (AIA) and the National Library of Israel to make copyright-free historic materials publicly available on Wikimedia’s server.

The full story may be found in an article in the CTech web site at: http://bit.ly/2H7Fs5U.

New York City Fines Cemetery Association $20,000 over ‘Sponsorship’ Banners

The Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island, a non-profit that cares for derelict graveyards, sold “sponsorship” banners (or signs) place near a number of abandoned cemeteries to raise money for fence repairs around the Lake Cemetery on Forest Avenue. Most of the abandoned cemeteries are located in residential areas.

This story is about laws in New York City but many other cities may have similar laws about placing signs with advertising in residential areas.

The banners — one advertised the Exit Exterminating company and featured pictures of cockroaches and other bugs — were not only in questionable taste, they ran afoul of New York City rules. The Department of Buildings issued violations for the outdoor ads, which are prohibited in the residential district. The city initially fined the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island $50,000 but later reduced the fine to $20,000.

Proposed Bill Would Force Many Arizonians to Pay $250 to Have Their DNA Added to a Database

This proposed legislation would be great for future genealogists if they can gain access to the database (which I doubt). However, there are huge security and privacy issues involved.

Arizona Bill 1475 was introduced by Republican State Senator David Livingston and would require teachers, police officers, child day care workers, and many others to submit their DNA samples along with fingerprints to be stored in a database maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

“While the database would be prohibited from storing criminal or medical records alongside the DNA samples, it would require the samples be accompanied by the person’s name, Social Security number, date of birth and last known address,” reports Gizmodo. “The living will be required to pay [a $250 processing fee] for this invasion of their privacy, but any dead body that comes through a county medical examiner’s office would also be fair game to be entered into the database.”

The text of the proposed bill may be found at: https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/54leg/1R/bills/SB1475P.pdf.

New Legislation Seeks To Protect Lost African-American Burial Grounds

From an article by David Anderson in Forbes:

“When new construction projects break ground across the United States, they regularly encounter archaeological materials. Those materials can represent the last surviving trace of the lives lived by the people who made them; and all too often, those materials turn out to be from cemeteries and burial grounds used by segregated and enslaved African American communities. These cemeteries typically went undocumented on local and state government maps and graves were often only marked ephemerally, thus making these spaces all but invisible in the present day.

Judge Declines to Block Citizenship Question from the 2020 Census on Privacy Grounds

This has been an ongoing issue that will affect future genealogists. In short, the Census Bureau proposed adding a question asking for each U.S. resident’s citizenship status in the 2020 census forms. A privacy and civil liberties nonprofit group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, responded by launching a lawsuit against the government claiming that the US Census Bureau was required to first complete a privacy impact assessment. The Electronic Privacy Information Center then asked for an immediate injunction be issued to prevent the Census Bureau from going forward with the citizenship question until the issue had been decided in the courts..

On Friday, US District Judge Dabney Friedrich declined to issue a preliminary injunction. The Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a statement it “intends to press forward with” its lawsuit.

A citizenship question has been asked of census respondents before, but not since 1950.

Indian Man to Sue Parents for Giving Birth to Him

A 27-year-old Indian man plans to sue his parents for giving birth to him without his consent. Mumbai businessman Raphael Samuel told the BBC that it’s wrong to bring children into the world because they then have to put up with lifelong suffering.

Obviously, his parents should have asked his permission first.

If you want to read more about this bit of stupidity, look at the article by Geeta Pandey in the BBC News web site at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47154287.

Ohio Open Records Bill Signed Into Law Becomes Effective April 7

The following announcement was written by Jan Meisels Allen, Chairperson of the IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee:

Former [Ohio] Governor John Kasich signed HB 139 into law on January 7, that lifts public access restrictions on records for permanent retention 75 years after their creation. It also permits a birth parent to have their name redacted from an original birth certificate. Certain types of records are excepted from the 75-year rule. Some records are subject to court rulings statewide, such as adoption records, probation and parole proceedings, confidential law enforcement investigatory records, DNA records stored in the DNA database, and court lunacy records. The current ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court says that it is up to each county judge as to whether or not the records are open in the respective county.