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By Daniel Hubbard | September 15, 2013

Genealogists deal with people’s identities all the time. We don’t normally deal with the physical reality of those people. We don’t deal with the he-is-right-there-in-front-of-me type of identity. We deal with little bits of information here and there. If we have it right, some data overlaps between sources and other data that isn’t found anywhere else extends our knowledge of that identity. In a sense that is the heart of the meaning of identity. It is the quality of being identical. That is, the person represented by this document is identical to the person found in that other document. Here there is the concept of a person as they exist on paper, being assembled from different documents. It is the concept of reuniting what had been scattered.

We also have the word “individual.” Individuals certainly have identities but the concepts run in opposing directions. An individual is literally something that cannot be divided, a unity that cannot be broken apart. For obvious reasons we associate the word “individual” with the physical reality of a person. That physical reality comes into existence and eventually goes out of existence. The nature of a person’s identity is certainly altered once the individual no longer exists but as any genealogist knows, identities remain in one form or another.

Modern Identity

A few things lately have me thinking about identity. A document I obtained for a client is quite explicitly about identity. A local official stated that the man standing before him was someone he knew well and that he was the same person as the man listed in a group of papers that were being submitted. That official identified that man. He stated that all the documents could be properly assembled into his identity. It is a document from a small place and long ago time.

Recently there was a theft of computers from a large healthcare company. According to the company, the computers contained the identities of about 4 million patients from a span of roughly 30 years. Here again we have the literal meaning of identity. Multiple facts about individuals were assembled and held together. The person named X is identical to the person with telephone number Y who is also identical to the person with social security number Z. Group enough facts like that together and they form an identity, a thing that can be stolen. An identity is also a thing that can be protected. Unfortunately in this case, the computers did not have encryption turned on and several million people’s identities are now in limbo.

Another news story that caught my eye was a guilty plea in a fraud case in which the social security numbers of then recently deceased individuals were used to obtain tax refunds about 5 years ago. Whenever I read something like this, it boggles my mind. Any competent genealogist understands that a properly assembled identity includes the fact of death once an individual has passed away. Once a person dies, their identity should contain that detail, there is no longer an individual who matches the identity. The identity still exists but it is changed finally and forever. The Social Security Administration’s Death Master File (commonly used by genealogists in the form of the Social Security Death Index) exists to make that determination of death an easy matter, that final alteration and inactivation of the identity. Once that fact is added to the identity, once the person represented is shown to be identical to the person who has died, all the acts in which a living person with that identity can engage should simply cease. It is an identity that can no longer be used or abused. Anyone can make that determination. Anyone who deals with identities should check to see if that endpoint has been reached. Why don’t they? Why do they not perform that last vital step when dealing with an identity and see if it still has a corresponding individual?

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