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Assuming you do not store, post, or record any information about a living person, is it ethical to use a living person other than yourself or your direct line as a kick-off point to begin research?

The most common examples would probably be identifying a genetic match and researching them to find how you are related or researching a friend or famous person's family history for fun.

I know that once you go back a few generations, those people being researched would be the ancestors of many people, and then it's clearly generally accepted as being okay.

Specifically, is it ethical to start by centering on one living person and researching without their knowledge?

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    From a legal perspective, how would me accessing public records be illegal? Your question would only make sense if the public records themselves were already an ethical violation of privacy. "identifying a genetic match" implies DNA analysis, which is notably different from genealogy. Thematically linked, but a very different thing in legal terms.
    – Flater
    Aug 9 '21 at 13:21
  • It isn't illegal. Aug 9 '21 at 14:20
  • @Flater, something can be legal but not ethical. Also, DNA analysis is a key element of the genealogy toolkit these days.
    – user104
    Aug 9 '21 at 14:21
  • @ColeValleyGirl: Fair enough on the legal/ethical distinction, but that does make it rather opinion-based and subjective. But not all genealogy inherently contains DNA sequencing and there's a significant distinction in terms of privacy, which is the main case against this being (allegedly) unethical.
    – Flater
    Aug 9 '21 at 14:26
  • @Flater, there are published standards for ethics in genealogy e.g. bcgcertification.org/ethics-standards and assessing a proposed course of action against a standard isn't totally subjective. Plus we allow constructive subjective questions on this site.
    – user104
    Aug 9 '21 at 14:45
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Not only would I say that it is ethical, I would say that it is an essential part of your research. In general, without that research then you cannot know whether the person is living or deceased. In order to confirm or analyse a DNA match then you will need to research them and their families, and if possible make contact with them.

Making contact with relatives is a big deal. My entry into genealogy involved finding my mother's siblings, all of whom were taken from the family home in 1947, separated, fostered or adopted. This was hugely successful but it meant not just looking at their vital events but all sources related to them, including newspapers, social media, registers of voters, etc.

I have also helped others find living relatives, such as a biological father who left Britain for India, and long-separated families in Wales and Utah.

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I would say definitely yes, because sometimes this is the only way of establishing how you're related to a DNA match if they have no information on their family tree. Also, the UK birth, marriage and death records are in the public domain anyway so it's not a violation of privacy.

So I suppose the question is really "why wouldn't it be ethical"?

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Family history research is, for the most part, carried out using publicly available sources. Yes, some researchers also have access to privately-held material such as interviews with living people, private diaries and the like, but the majority of sources are public, although perhaps restricted by privacy laws in relevant jurisdictions.

As long as a researcher (1) complies with a relevant set of ethical standards such as the BCG's Genealogist Code of Ethics (2) only uses publicly-available sources, or other sources which they have permission to use; and (3) does not publish or otherwise disclose any information about living individuals without their permission, then using any living individual as a starting point for research for whatever reason would be ethical. (Your caveat about not storing or recording information about living individuals would make doing the research a little tricky however.)

There are however, important, decisions to be made about any information you publish/disclose about deceased individuals that might cause distress to living ones (and about living individuals with their permission that might cause distress to other living individuals), as discussed here: When a genealogist decides to formally publish their years of family history research, are the privacy concerns the same as for online publication?. The issues involved are not only ethical but potentially legal as well (and Genealogy.SE is not a place where we can advice on legal issues).

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    I would agree that the division between living and deceased is seriously inadequate. I know something about a deceased relative that probably is the explanation of a family rift. I have zero intention of revealing that, because the deceased relative has family. So it's more than just that simple division.
    – AdrianB38
    Aug 8 '21 at 13:25
  • When I say not storing information, I mean I may enter them as an anonymous child in my research system of choice and then enter their parents or any other ancestors information if they're deceased. If a parent were alive, then I would enter them as an anonymous parent or grandparent because I can remember which family I'm working on based on patrilineal surnames. Aug 9 '21 at 15:29
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    @Ryan, if your software doesn't allow you to make a person as Private (so that you don't publish information about them inadvertently) that's a workaround -- thanks for the clarification (it might fit well in the original question?)
    – user104
    Aug 9 '21 at 15:31

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