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Security Measures
11/6/2009
How do genealogy Web sites protect their data—and the facts you’ve stored there?
We go behind the scenes to find out.
It was a heartbreaking day in 1921 when the 1890 US census records were soaked through during a fire. The National Archives didn’t exist then, let alone a disaster plan. Today, if a fire broke out at any genealogy repository, losses likely wouldn’t be so devastating.
 
But what if an earthquake destroyed Ancestry.com’s servers? What if a virus crashed Footnote? Would all that data be lost—along with the master version of the family tree you’ve been constructing online?
Under wraps
 
All genealogical data sites take measures to protect their data. Many follow standards for top-tier data centers, which include compartmentalized security zones, fully redundant systems (for backup) and even a subterranean location. But many, for security reasons, won’t comment on them. Though contacted, the family treebuilding site Geni and data sites Ancestry.com, Footnote and FamilySearch declined to provide information for this article.
 
But our Genealogy Insider blog has details about Ancestry.com’s data storage—in a secure location with a fire-suppression system and powerful emergency generators, and regular data backups kept off-site.
 
And FamilySearch does reassure submitters to its Pedigree Resource File that their data are being well cared-for. “A copy of the genealogy files (GEDCOM format) that you submit will be preserved in the Granite Mountain Records Vault located near Salt Lake City, Utah,” says the submission screen.
Steve Nickle, president and chief operating officer of FamilyLink.com (owner of data site World Vital Records) did talk, saying a catastrophic data loss is unlikely. “We don’t intend to ever have any data loss,” says Nickle. “To my knowledge we have not ever had any data loss that was not backed up or recoverable. We’re doing everything we can, to our knowledge, to reasonably protect data.”
 
Nickle cites two issues: privacy and security. “Most of our data is public domain data, so we don’t have to have the same privacy precautions as a large bank,” he says.
 
But that doesn’t mean the company isn’t careful. “We outsource many of our [data storage] services to Amazon. They are one of the best companies in the world at securing data, and we are very comfortable that our content won’t be lost.”
 
Amazon.com operates from a top-tier data center, Nickle says, adding “Many of these data centers are built with reinforced concrete, able to withstand large earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. They have generators that will kick on in a power outage. Even if there were a major natural disaster, the content will still keep coming.”
 
User-generated content—family trees, photos, stories—comprises only about 1 percent of data on World Vital Records. But Nickle anticipates that number will grow, and he says his company treats your data with as much respect as its own records. “When we get content—whether it’s from users or we produce it ourselves—before we ever put it up on our servers, we back it up in a secure location off the Internet,” Nickle explains. “We do a completely fresh backup about once a week.”
 
And those annoying service interruptions? Redundant servers to the rescue. “If one of the servers fails, the exact same content exists on another server,” Nickle says. “Other than a minute or two when we might be rebooting a server, we always have two versions of the same content.” During any temporary power failure, he says, users would see no difference.
 
No guarantees
Though gone-for-good genealogy information is unlikely, what assurances do you have that your online family tree will always be right where you left it?
 
“We have a service-level agreement with providers like Amazon.com,” Nickle says. “They guarantee the data will be available, and we have contractual means to recover data loss.”
 
That sounds hopeful, but if data are irretrievably lost despite sites’ precautions, that doesn’t mean users would receive monetary compensation. World Vital Records’ terms and conditions of use state, “In no instance will the WVR Parties be liable for any … damages including delay or failure of use, loss of data, viruses or other disabling features.”
 
Other major sites—including Ancestry.com, Footnote and even the free site FamilySearch—have similar language in their user agreements. Footnote goes a step further on this topic: “You specifically acknowledge that Footnote.com shall not be liable for user submissions.”
 
In the end, of course, most genealogists would rather have their research than a few dollars from a class-action suit over data loss. The best protection for your data is your own: Keep backup copies of everything you submit online. You could also post it multiple places.
 
If you’re building your tree online rather than uploading a GEDCOM file from your computer, you’re probably aware that most tree-building sites don’t allow users to save copies of their trees. World Vital Records is working on providing that option, Nickle says. Until then, keep a current copy of your tree and other genealogy files on your own computer, with a CD backup, and you’ll have the peace of mind that your “family” is always at home.
 
From the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine
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