RPAC at FGS 2019 in DC — Is This A Breakthrough?

The FGS Annual Conference being held this week at the Omni Shoreham hotel in DC will feature a Records Preservation and Access Committee report on Thursday afternoon at 4:00 pm, session T-244. Panel presenters will include the Executive Director of NAPHSIS, the organization of Vital Records Officers; Jan Meisels Allen providing an update of recent state legislative activity restricting access to Vital Records; Jeremy Grant from the local Venable Law Firm presenting a new Blueprint for a Better Identity, a solution to the identity theft crisis; and Fred Moss addressing how all of these organizations might work together to promote mutual interests.

Additional materials will be added to this post after the presentation.

Syllabus pages for this session are found here:  T-244 RPAC


UPDATED  3 September 2019

For most of the past decade the greatest threat to our access to the records we need has come from ill advised attempts to deal with the scourge of identity theft. Initial responses by legislators and other decision makers was prompted by an almost reflexive belief that the best or only way to thwart identity thieves was to close the records thieves might have used.  The genealogical community is prepared to support measures that actually protect us and others from identity thieves.  Our extra challenge has been that we have frequently had to deal with proposals that limit our access while barely inconveniencing identity thieves. 

With special thanks to our guest presenters the news shared at this session suggests that a long needed paradigm shift has begun.

 Shawna Webster, Executive Director of the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) shared the results of a recently completed strategic planning process in which the NAPHSIS Board has made the decision to expand access to data of which developing a new version of the Model State Vital Records Act is a part.   The process they envision contemplates a broadly based working group soliciting input from many stakeholders including representatives of the genealogical community. 

 Her remarks suggest a significant departure from the embargo provision of the 2011 version of the Model Act which would have limited access to birth certificates for 125 years, death certificates for 75 years and marriage and divorce records for 100 years. Shawna specifically acknowledged the absence of statistical data demonstrating that longer embargo periods help thwart identity theft. 

The adverse impact of these provisions has compelled the genealogical community to oppose the adoption of these provisions in each jurisdiction considering the 2011 version of the Model act. Our message has been consistently shared with the leadership of NAPHSIS over the last several years as reflected in the one page information paper found here:  VRRegistrars Rev April 2

Jan Meisels Allen reviewed a number of instances that have attracted our attention and raised our concerns in recent days, both in the US and the European Union. Details of her presentation are addressed in the syllabus and found in the RPAC slide deck here:  FGS 2019 version 21 Aug 21).

Jeremy Grant then shared a report on the efforts of the Coalition for a Better Identity referencing their recently published report described on their website suggesting a variety of solutions to the identity theft crisis.  http://www.betteridentity.org

He has made available the slides he used for his structured presentation here:  FGS – Better Identity Coalition – August 2019 

During the ensuing discussion he described recent contacts with Congressional staff suggesting that their thinking has evolved well past their exclusive use of records closure in response to the identity theft threat. Particularly noteworthy were his observations on the futility of attempting to treat Social Security numbers as if they were a secret.  He suggested that one of the lessons learned from the Equifax breach was that in addition to the government and legitimate enterprises having access to your Social Security number, the Russians have it, the Chinese have it, Nigerian gangs have it, and that a teenage hacker can buy it off the dark web for less than one dollar. 

In my closing remarks, I hope I adequately expressed our community’s gratitude for the direction NAPHSIS has chosen to move toward greater access. In expressing our opposition to the 2011 embargos, we had previously declared that “RPAC does not accept that an essentially adversarial relationship between genealogists and vital statistics registrars is desirable or necessary. . . . If that dialogue can lead to a coordinated posture that both communities can support, then genealogists can begin to function as allies to vital records officers not only on access to death records but be supportive of broader vital records interests as well.”    May it be so. 

The Session was recorded by Fleetwood Onsite. A copy of the audio recording can be ordered online at www.fleetwoodonsite.com/fgs or by calling 1-800-353-1830

 Significant detailed new developments were reported during this session. Anyone interested in being up-to-date on the current status of Records Preservation and Access issues or in supporting the effort to implement the initiatives discussed would benefit from listening to the recording.

Posted by Fred Moss.

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Legal Advisor to Federation of Genealogical Societies; Former Associate Dean, Texas Wesleyan University School of Law; Colonel (retired), JAGC, USA

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