Legal Affairs

Reclaim The Records Wins Another Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) Request: New York State Department of Health Concedes the New York State Death Index is to become Available to the Public under Open Records Laws

I often write about bad news in which legislators and bureaucrats keep blocking genealogists from accessing records that legally qualify as public domain. Therefore, it is great to report another victory from Reclaim The Records!

An announcement from Reclaim The Records states:

“After seventeen months of work, we have now forced the New York State Department of Health to concede that this data is, and should be, available to the public under open records laws. We secured the first ever public copies of this important state death index, which the Department of Health has digitized for us, scanned from the original vault copies. They are high-resolution greyscale images, with the entire set comprising about 3/4 of a terabyte of data on a portable hard drive. (That’s a lot of dead people.)

Can Ancestry.com Claim Ownership of Your DNA Data?

A controversial article by a consumer protection attorney and former deputy attorney general of New Jersey has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Joel Winston published an article with the claim that the genealogy website Ancestry.com is “taking DNA ownership rights” from customers and their families. In other words, he says that Ancestry.com claims to own their customers’ personal DNA data.

Strong words, indeed. In fact, Mr. Winston’s assertions seem to be a bit far fetched.

Ancestry.com responded on the company’s DNA blog. Without mentioning Attorney Winston by name, Ancestry.com’s Chief Privacy Officer Eric Heath called Winston’s post “inflammatory and inaccurate.” Heath emphasized that Ancestry.com never takes ownership of customers’ DNA. Instead, the customers license the information to Ancestry DNA but the customers always retain ownership.

Finding Lisa: A Real-Life Murder/Mystery/Genealogy Story

A fascinating story by Shelley Murphy, published in the Boston Globe, seems to b almost too strange to be true. Sadly, it is not only true, but pieces of the whole story are still missing. Dozens of law enforcement officers around the country, social workers, investigators from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, genealogists, and others have worked together to find as much information about a serial killer as possible. There may be even more information waiting to be found. Law enforcement officials feel there may be even more victims than are known so far.

A man of many aliases seems to have murdered a number of wives, girlfriends, and children. At various times, he lived in New Hamshire, Texas, California, Idaho, and probably in other states as well.

Genealogists became involved when there was a need to identify the ancestry of one little girl who was abandoned, but not murdered, by the serial killer. Working with DNA and with public records, the volunteers spent thousands of hours building her family tree of some 19,000 people, just on her maternal side. The list of people who descended from just one ancestor, the one with 18 children, filled a line of letter-size sheets that, taped together, extended 11 feet.

Genealogist Who Helps Heirs Obtain Fortunes in Estate Cases Accused of Using Forged Documents

Every year, millions of people die worldwide without making a will (called dying intestate), often leaving substantial cash and property estates which, if not claimed, goes to the state. Worth billions, this provides vast income opportunities for genealogists who trace missing beneficiaries to these valuable estates.

Heir tracing is the business of seeking living descendant relatives who often have lost touch with their distant kin and, in most cases, have no idea of their family link. Many professional genealogists also are heir hunters, also known as probate researchers. Heir hunters are the ones who start with the information of a wealthy deceased person and then find the previously-unknown relatives who stand to inherit the estate.

In return, the heir hunter charges a percentage of the inherited wealth, typically 30%, 40%, or more. For some, heir hunting has turned out to be a lucrative business, paying much, much more than traditional genealogy research. Vadim Tevelev is one such heir hunter.

U.S. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson Resigns Unexpectedly

In a move that may have a major impact on the 2020 U.S. census, U.S. Census Bureau director John H. Thompson has resigned. The resignation apparently was not expected. Government watchers and policy experts are worried that Thompson’s departure on June 30 could bode poorly for the 2020 Census.

Thompson did not offer any explanation of why he resigned suddenly. However, speculation is a popular sport in the District of Columbia and several so-called experts have offered guesses as to the reasoning. You can read some of the guesses in an article in the Digg web site at: http://digg.com/2017/census-director-resigns.

Iowa is Issuing new Birth Certificates

The Iowa Department of Public Health says parents whose children were born between May 1993 and October 2009 should exchange their child’s birth certificate for a new one. Children born between those dates were issued a wallet-sized certificate. The cards do not have enough information to be used as identification. The wallet-sized certificates, in some cases, lack information that federal or state agencies need for you to prove your identity

More than 630,000 birth certificates in Iowa need to be exchanged.

Details may be found on the KCCI website at: https://goo.gl/eQL2WW.

Death Master File (also known as the Social Security Death Index) — How Did The Congress Get So Far Off Track?

Writing in the RPAC Blog, Fred Moss points out an excellent example of Congress taking a valuable tool and totally messing it up. As a result of legislative ineptitude, a tool previously used to REDUCE identity theft has now been mis-labeled as a frequent CAUSE of identity theft. Genealogists, historians, and average citizens all suffer as a result.

You might want to read Fred’s article in the RPAC Blog at http://www.fgs.org/rpac/2017/02/21/dmf-how-did-the-congress-get-so-far-off-track.

I suggest printing Fred’s article out and mailing it to your elected representatives. (I have read that most legislators don’t read email from constituents as most legislators receive too many email messages to manage. Old-fashioned paper and “snail mail” reportedly works better.)

Funding for new Indiana State Archives in Jeopardy

According to an article in the Indiana Genealogical Society Blog:

“Planning for the new Indiana State Archives building in Indianapolis (which the Indiana General Assembly approved $25 million for in spring 2015) has been at a standstill for the last few months. Recently a deal fell through to pay for it by selling the state’s cell-phone towers. Your help is now needed to ensure that it gets fully funded.

Orasure Settles Lawsuit with Ancestry.Com over DNA Testing for $12.5 Million

Ancestry.com has agreed to pay OraSure Technologies Inc. and its Canadian subsidiary DNA Genotek $12.5 million to settle claims it stole patented DNA testing technology to produce its own saliva-based DNA test.

DNA Genotek sued Ancestry.com in May 2015, alleging the website stole its technology for collecting DNA via saliva samples and improved upon it for its own use in violation of the terms of an agreement between the two companies. The website offers to trace users’ ethnic background using their DNA.

New U.S. Budget Blueprint May Affect Genealogists

Madge Maril, Associate Editor of Family Tree Magazine, has written a brief article in the magazine’s blog that warns of the proposed loss of one of genealogy’s major tools: the free Chronicling America newspaper search website, used by many genealogists to find information about ancestors and other relatives in local newspapers.

The Chronicling America web site is a service of the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal agency funding humanities programs in the United States. Madge Maril points out the new administration’s federal budget blueprint proposes elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities. If that passes, the Chronicling America newspaper search website probably will go offline.

You can read Madge Maril’s article in the Family Tree Magazine Blog at: https://goo.gl/0b0Zlz.

Two Baby Boys are Twins, but an Italian Court Says They Aren’t Brothers

Try entering this into your genealogy database! Fifteen months ago in California, a surrogate mother gave birth to twin boys. The babies were the sons of a gay Italian couple who had used in vitro fertilization to have children. But when the two men returned to Milan with their newborns, a clerk at the registry office refused to transcribe the babies’ birth certificates, barring the men from registering the boys as their legal children.

Actually, that part isn’t news. After all, similar situations have occurred before. However, the Italian courts then issued a strange ruling: Despite being twins, the court said, the two boys aren’t brothers!

A New Law in New Jersey Eases Privacy Rules On Adoptions

Imagine walking through life wondering who is my mother? Who is my father? Those are questions that nag many adoptees.

Since the 1940s adoption records in New Jersey have been sealed without a court order and locked in a room in Trenton. Parents who gave their babies away expected privacy. But come January 1st the records of about 300,000 adoptees will be unsealed.

North Carolina Lawmakers Renege On Deal To Repeal Hb2 ‘In Full’

This is a follow-up to an article I posted two days ago, Incoming North Carolina Governor Vows Repeal of Controversial LGBT Law, Thereby Avoiding Controversy over the National Genealogical Society’s Annual Conference. That article is available at: https://goo.gl/tDMYab. It seems that North Carolina lawmakers came up with a plan to repeal the anti-LGBT law HB2, as promised. The only problem with their plan is that it does not entirely repeal HB2.

It is a convoluted story. You can read the details in an article in The Washington Post at https://goo.gl/pccrej.

Incoming North Carolina Governor Vows Repeal of Controversial LGBT Law, Thereby Avoiding Controversy over the National Genealogical Society’s Annual Conference

Good news: the incoming North Carolina Governor has vowed to repeal the state’s controversial LGBT law. Details may be found at: https://goo.gl/ovEaqX.

UPDATE: A later story with developing details may now be found at https://goo.gl/RJbgT0.

One would hope that state politics would not interfere with planned genealogy conferences. Sadly, that is what happened when the State of North Carolina passed the so-called HB2 legislation that blatantly discriminated against the rights of LGBTQ citizens and visitors to the state. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (and/or questioning) individuals/identities.)

Many companies and non-profits immediately canceled planned conferences, sporting events, and even business expansions in North Carolina because of the chilling effect of the state’s HB2 or the “bathroom bill.” Even the U.S. Justice Department officials are on record as stating the law violates the U.S. Civil Rights Act and Title IX – a finding that could jeopardize billions in federal education funding. You can read more about that issue at http://goo.gl/qdPS3U.

Controversy within the genealogy community arose because of the previously-planned annual conference of the National Genealogical Society (NGS) that was already planned for 10-13 May 2017 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The NGS managers found themselves about equi-distant between a rock and a hard spot. For background information, see my earlier article, North Carolina’s Anti-LGBTQ Law Will Cost the State more than $395 Million and Even Affects Genealogy Conferences, at https://goo.gl/oDivBp.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Claims Obtaining Indexes of Birth and Death Records will Cost $1.5 Million

show-me_stateThe “Show Me State” apparently doesn’t want to show anything.

Reclaim the Records asked the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services for copies all the state’s birth and death records from 1910 through 2015. The group sought the information under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. An attorney for the department replied that the the birth list would take the agency 23,376 hours to compile and the death list 11,688 hours. At $42.50 an hour, the tab came to an eye-popping $1.5 million.

After some discussion, the attorney reduced the estimate to $1.46 million.

Reclaim the Records then hired their own attorney, Bernie Rhodes, a media-law specialist at the Kansas City law firm Lathrop & Gage. Rhodes asked the Department of Health and Senior Services for more information about the database that stored the birth and death records. Based on the information, he suggested some ideas and even provided the toll-free number for the help desk for software provider the department uses to retrieve records from its database.

After considering Rhodes’ suggestions, the department quoted a new estimate. The attorney for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Service conceded that, in fact, the effort would not require thousands of hours of staff time. The records, the department said, would now cost $5,174, or a 99.7 percent decrease from the original price quote.

Then the story gets even more complicated.

Blockchain Based Crypto-will Fulfills Last Wishes

This probably will be a game changer in the legal profession. I suspect it will also be a problem for future genealogists who want a copy of an ancestor’s will.

blockchain_apparatus_logoBlockchain Apparatus is a start-up company in Denver that is working on several legal areas, including property and trusts. Its mission is to provide new developments in the legal services industry. The company has found a new application of blockchain technology (see Note #1 below) that works with data available with the federal government database (especially from the US Social Security Administration). This new product makes self-executing digital wills possible.

In the near future, Blockchain Apparatus expects to have a software/network combination which is the executor of a deceased person’s last will and testament. The process will be automated, will run on thousands of computers simultaneously (thereby guaranteeing reliability), and will be visible to everyone (thereby ensuring there will never be a difference of opinion as to the will’s existence).

For the first time in history, it will be possible to hand out the entire process of will administration to a software program running outside of human control. This process will be executed by the code running this software.

Closing Death Records — The Logical Flaw

From an article by Fred Moss in the Records Preservation and Access Committee Blog:

“One of the misperceptions with which we have repeatedly had to wrestle in recent years has been that ALL Personally Identifiable Information (PII) by default must be safeguarded. For many legislators in recent years, it is almost a reflexive belief that the best or only way to fight identify thieves is to close the records that thieves might have used. At this level of thinking, rarely do current decision-makers distinguish between the active PII of the living from records of deceased individuals. It is this flawed logic that was given as the rationale for the provisions of Section 203 of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 limiting access to and the content of the SSA’s Death Master File.

“May I suggest that death changes many things!”

Closing Death Records Is Just Dead Wrong!

Fred Moss has posted an article on the Records Preservation and Access Committee (RPAC) Blog that I would suggest be required reading for every genealogist, every legislator, and every government employee who has responsibility for public records.

Note: RPAC is a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

Fred describes the threats of identity theft and then tells how the restriction of access to public records is ineffective. He then writes:

North Carolina’s Anti-LGBTQ Law Will Cost the State more than $395 Million and Even Affects Genealogy Conferences

Normally, this would not be a genealogy-related story and I would ignore it. However, it became a genealogy story because the National Genealogical Society is planning to hold its annual conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, on May 10 to 13, 2017. Information about that conference is available on the NGS web site at: http://conference.ngsgenealogy.org.

Many companies and non-profits are canceling planned conferences, sporting events, and even business expansions in North Carolina because of the chilling effect of the state’s recently-passed HB2 or the “bathroom bill.” The bill discriminates against LGBTQ citizens and visitors to the state. (LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (and/or questioning) individuals/identities.)

RPAC at FGS Springfield 2016

The following announcement was written by Fred Moss for the Records Preservation and Access Committee  (RPAC):

The Federation of Genealogical Societies is celebrating its 40th Anniversary as a featured theme at its Annual Conference this week in Springfield, Illinois. On this occasion, the Records Preservation and Access Committee is presenting a workshop session entitled Striking a Balance Between Records Access and Privacy Thursday Afternoon the 1st of September at 3:30pm CDT in Room B1 of the Springfield Conference Center.