Security Concerns with Technology and Family History

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Computers and Genealogy

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Computers and Genealogy
The Internet and Family History
NGS Guidelines for Publishing Web Pages on the Internet
Family History Software
Collaboration and Sharing
NGS Guidelines for Sharing
Online Options for Family History Education
Security Concerns with Technology and Family History
Other Gadgets and Helpful Technology

This article originally appeared in "Computers and Technology" by Juliana Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy


When purchasing family history products, be sure to do your homework. Choose only reputable companies to do business with. When solicited by marketers of a product or when considering spending large sums of money, it is a good idea to check out the company or organization at the Better Business Bureau (BBB) website. Not only can you search the Bureau's database to determine what kind of record the company has and what kind of complaints have been filed, but there is also helpful information on other ways to prevent identity theft.

Similarly, when hiring researchers, check their credentials thoroughly. The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) maintains a directory on their website of professionals within their organization. Researchers can be searched for by record type and by the geographic locations where their specialties lie. Members of the APG must agree to uphold the organization's strict code of ethics, and APG will mediate disputes between its members and their clients.

Viruses and Hackers

It is an unfortunate truth that there are a number of dangers inherent when you research using the Internet. Hackers and virus writers, while mostly intent on mischief, also have the potential to invade your computer, steal personal information like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and online banking information, and possibly destroy some or all of your data. Systems with broadband Internet connections are particularly vulnerable, since they remain connected to the Internet whenever the computer is in use. Using some form of security to protect your computer should be a priority.

There are a number of reputable products currently available, the most noted among which are produced by Symantec (Norton Security and Anti-Virus Products) and McAfee.

In addition, just installing a product in some cases may not be enough. With new viruses and avenues of attack being discovered each day, updates to the programs are needed to keep up with the new dangers. With both of the aforementioned services, purchases come with a one-year update package, where updates are automatically sought and installed periodically.

In addition to a multitude of viruses circulating in cyberspace, there are also a lot of hoaxes, with many relating to computer security. But with some hoaxes passing themselves off as updates from reputable companies, it is important to be certain. Both McAfee and Symantec maintain searchable encyclopedias that contain the latest information on both viruses and hoaxes. There are also sites like and the Urban Legends Archive, both of which contain helpful information.

As genealogists, we are taught to verify the accuracy of everything. That is sound advice when it comes to the Internet.


Despite our best intentions, the possibility always exists of damaging viruses, computer crashes, fires, floods, and other natural disasters. To protect family history and other electronic files, it's important to perform backups regularly. That way, if the unexpected does happen, we haven't lost everything.

What to Back Up

Since most software comes with CDs and can be reinstalled, it is really only necessary to back-up the data portions of files. Family history files that should be backed up include the following:

  • GEDCOM files
  • Any time lines or spreadsheets you've created
  • Scanned images of documents and photographs
  • Any family history publications and other related word processing documents you have
  • Your e-mail data file and archive
  • Contact information for work, friends, and family
  • Any audio and video files
  • List of favorite websites

How you locate some of these files will depend on what kind of computer you have and what operating system you use, but the Help files should be able guide you to the correct file.

How to Back Up

How you back up your data will depend on the technology you have access to. Because 3.5" diskettes only hold 1.44 megabytes of data, it would likely take quite a few of them to back up everything you need to. For this reason, it is recommended that you invest in a CD- or DVD-writer, a Zip drive, some kind of Flash media, or a removable drive. Many of these options are relatively inexpensive and many computers now come with CD- or DVD-writers as standard components. A trip to your local office supply or computer store can get you up to speed with the most current options available.

Some other suggestions concerning backups include the following:

  • Keep a log of your backups and schedule reminders on a calendar to make sure you keep them current.
  • Make sure you keep your backups on current technology. If your backup was on a 5 1/4" floppy diskette, would you be able to restore your data today?
  • Test your backup. You don't want to find out after a problem strikes that your backup files are unusable.
  • Store one or more copies offsite. If some sort of disaster were to hit your home, you would still be able to retrieve the information from the offsite location. Some places to consider might be a family member's house, or a safety deposit box.
  • Load a GEDCOM online. A copy of your latest GEDCOM on a password-protected site, like those offered by, is backed up offsite and is accessible from any home computer with an Internet connection.
  • Backup to paper. Should something happen to you, the pile of disks in your desk may not be as likely to survive as the album of documents and family trees you have worked so hard to preserve. Printed using archival paper and ink, and preserved with archival quality sheet protectors, your printed family history will last for years to come.

Other Protective Measures

  • Your computer is vulnerable to sudden changes in its power supply. Surge protectors and an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) can help you to protect your equipment from unexpected power surges.
  • Surge protectors won't protect your computer from a direct lightning strike. In severe storms unplug your computer from its power source and disconnect any phone or cable lines.
  • There are fire resistant safes that can help preserve paper and some electronic media for varying periods. Check Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listings on products to see what kind of media they will protect, and how long they will protect them from fire.


Coming soon...

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