Online family trees “break personal data law”

Genealogists' free exchange of family history information over the internet could be in breach of Sweden's personal data act, according to the country's Board of Data Inspection (DI).

If the details being shared refer to the race or ethnic origin of a person in the 18th century, all living descendants must give their consent before any information is made public.

That’s the gist of a stinging letter sent by DI last week to the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies, requesting personal details be removed from their web site immediately.

The site gives members the opportunity to follow and contribute to other members’ research. In the majority of cases the information shared is about people long dead and the discussion forum contained sections headed ‘Crime and punishment’ and ‘Ethnic groups’, which referred to Jewish, Romany and Sami ancestors.

It is this that appears to have bothered the Board of Data Inspection. In its letter, DI pointed out that the personal data act usually does not apply to dead people. But if the information can be linked to living people, it is governed by the act – and that means sensitive details about race and ethnic origin are no-go areas.

According to the personal data act it is also illegal for anyone other than state authorities to handle information about individuals relating to crime and punishment.

“Maybe DI means well with its pronouncement, but it will have the wrong effect,” wrote the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies’ chairman, Ted Rosvall, on their web site.

While the federation says it will introduce a new log in process for its forum, it will also seek a clarification from DI.

“Swedes are a multicultural people and we have had immigrants through the ages. There are Jewish, Romany and Sami ancestors but if the DI decision stands then we will only be able to discuss white, arian ancestors on the forum. I call that reverse racism,” said Rosvall.

Britt-Marie Wester at DI confirmed the board’s interpretation of the law: if you want to exchange sensitive information about someone who can be traced to a living person, that person must be asked first.

“Ethnic origin is sensitive information and such details cannot be handled without consent,” she said to TT.

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