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MGC's Initial Testimony in Opposition to H-603
October 25, 2011
Re: H-603 Oppose
An Act Relative to Birth Records, by Mr. James R. Miceli of Wilmington, petition (House Bill H-603). Joint Committee on Public Health.
Sen. Fargo, Rep. Sanchez, and Members of the Joint Committee:
The Massachusetts Genealogical Council is an umbrella organization representing more than 36,000 members of genealogical and historical societies who work in Massachusetts historical records. Whether current day residents of the Commonwealth or the returning descendants of early Massachusetts settlers, all wish public records to remain open and accessible.
We in the genealogical community are concerned that the proposed bill is in direct contravention to existing Massachusetts Public Record Law which states, in part: "A custodian of a public record shall permit all public records within his or her custody to be inspected or copied by any person during regular business hours." This has changed little since it was first published in the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties: "Every inhabitant of the Countrie shall have free libertie to search or veewe any Rooles, Records, or Regesters of any Court or Office except the Councell, And to have a transcript or exemplification thereof written examined, and signed by the hand of the officer of the office paying the appointed fees therefore."
The proposed bill, while well meaning, is misguided in its attempt to curb identify theft. The US Department of Justice website (http://www.justice.gov/criminal/fraud/websites/idtheft.html : 25 October 2011) lists the following as the most common known causes of identity fraud:
• Internet spam and cyber-spying
• Shoulder surfing/eavesdropping
• Dumpster diving
• Mail interception and redirection
• Pickpocketing and robbery
The one glaring omission is abuse of public vital records. In fact, thieves are unlikely to go directly to a government agency to commit fraud in person. The criminal's return on investment is much higher through Internet fraud, where illegal activity reaps exponential rewards, yet is so difficult to track.
Genealogy is the second largest hobby in the United States today. According to research published by a University of Illinois expert in tourism and recreation, genealogical tourism is one of the fastest growing markets in vacation travel. The incredible popularity of television shows about genealogy, such as Who Do You Think You Are, which attracted between six and seven million viewers on average (not even counting those over 50, the bulk of genealogists) demonstrates that this activity in this field is on the upswing. And this is great news for our Commonwealth! Massachusetts is a magnet for historians and genealogists who come from all over the world to research in our fine libraries, such as the New England Historic Genealogical Society, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenaeum, the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the National Archives and Records Administration, and many, many more repositories, universities, cemeteries, historical societies and libraries in every town. They come for national conferences, for personal research, family reunions and visits, and to further their education in these fields. The boost to our local economy that is generated by genealogy enthusiasts and professionals, cannot be overlooked.
Yet genealogy is not merely a hobby enjoyed by millions. It serves as a means to construct medical family histories which are increasingly being requested by physicians to assist them in diagnosing and treating patients. Information in birth and death records helps us reconstruct families and trace genetically inherited diseases.
Various branches of the US military hire genealogists to help them locate next of kin of servicemen lost in previous wars, for which use of vital records is a frequent necessity. In addition, DNA donors must be determined in each serviceman's family which aids in identification of repatriated remains. Again, the vital records are crucial for this research.
Massachusetts vital records have always been open to the public, a practice that has traditionally been viewed as a means to verify identity, not steal it. It has rarely been found that an individual's identity is violated by access to vital records: rather, studies have repeatedly found that identity theft results from security breaches in the computer systems of government and private enterprises. The Federal government makes no recommendations to close down access to public records, and, in fact, does not even mention vital records as a potential trouble spot. There is no basis to conclude that restricting access will in any way curtail fraud, and there is no proof that citizens in jurisdictions with restricted access suffer any less fraud than those in unrestricted ones.
Let us focus our attention and resources where they are needed and let our public records remain just that –– public.
Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt, CGSM
Certified Genealogist and CG are service marks of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, used under license by the Board's associates after periodic evaluation.