Recently, a Westford woman emailed us to express her surprise upon discovering that many of her family's vital records issued by the State of Vermont, including marriage licenses and her children and grandchildren's birth certificates, are available online through Ancestry.com, a for-profit service for researching genealogies.
The woman, who asked that she not be named for fear of identity theft, pointed out that many of those documents contain personal identifying information — birth dates, parents' birthplaces, mothers' maiden names — often used by financial institutions as security questions to prevent fraud. Upon further research, she discovered that comparable documents from other states weren't as readily available.
"I had to pay and jump through hoops to get a birth certificate from New Jersey," she noted. Suspecting that the State of Vermont gave Ancestry.com access to its vital records database, she asked, "Who legislated this or decided that this was a good policy?"
Short answer: Ancestry.com actually created Vermont's searchable database of vital records using documents that have long been publicly available.
Tanya Marshall is the state archivist and director of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration. Although the Vermont Department of Health is the official registrar of "vital event certificates," such as birth records and death certificates, VSARA maintains custody of most of those documents at its Middlesex facility.
Marshall pointed out that anyone can walk into her office and obtain a copy of those documents, with no questions asked. Why? State law puts "absolutely no restrictions on public access to Vermont vital records." In fact, it's one of only six states to do so.
As for who wrote this law: Learning that would require perusing Vermont history books. Suffice it to say, those lawmakers are dead by now, since the statute dates back more than a century.
What explains this odd statutory quirk? And, in the age of rampant identity theft, why hasn't it been changed yet?
First, some historical perspective: Today, Americans are accustomed to using a certified copy of their birth certificate as a legal instrument to, say, open a bank account or obtain a passport or driver's license. But, as Marshall noted, "In the past, a vital record didn't have the same significance."
In the early 1900s, she explained, Vermont, like other states, passed laws compelling towns and cities to record vital events such as births, marriages, divorces, deaths and adoptions, in part as an aid to demographic research. By and large, those records remained open to the public until the 1950s and '60s, when other states began closing them — though not, as one might assume, out of concern for fraud.
According to Marshall, states closed access to their vital records, especially adoptions, to protect families from the stigma attached to unwed motherhood. (Vermont's adoption records were closed in 1947.) However, Vermont was adamant about keeping its other vital records publicly accessible. In the 1970s and '80s, Marshall continued, most states converted their paper records to electronic ones, but Vermont did not.
Fast-forward to the 21st century. How and why did Ancestry.com get access to the state's vital records? Blame 9/11 and the ensuing frenzy to bolster homeland security.
In 2005, Congress passed the Real ID Act, which, among other things, established more stringent standards for issuing driver's licenses and state identification cards that would be acceptable for official purposes, such as boarding commercial airplanes and entering federal buildings.
By the mid-2000s, Marshall noted, Vermont was also the only state still using a paper-based vital records system. Since the health department needed to convert its paper records to electronic ones quickly and inexpensively — the Real ID Act was an unfunded federal mandate — it hired Ancestry.com to build its database at no cost to the state.
To that end, Ancestry.com was given all of Vermont's vital records from 1909 through 2008, which were on microfilm. The company then created an indexed and searchable database, which it made available to customers.
Considering today's heightened attention to cybersecurity and online privacy, isn't Marshall concerned that Vermonters' vital records could be misused?
Actually, not so much. As she pointed out, virtually all of those documents have long been available to anyone who wanted them, because they're on microfilm in libraries throughout the country. Moreover, she added, a lot of that data can be found in newspapers' birth announcements and obituaries, as well as on social media sites.
As for someone getting a certified copy of, say, your child's birth certificate and using it to fraudulently obtain a passport, Marshall explained that, in 2017, the legislature passed an act relating to vital records. Its purpose: to "enhance the safety and security of birth and death certificates, provide better protection against misuse of these legal documents, and reduce the potential for identity theft."
That law, which will take effect on July 1, 2019, will allow only family members, legal guardians, funeral directors and other court-appointed parties to obtain a certified copy of birth and death certificates. However, nothing will change when it comes to ordering copies of marriage, civil union, divorce or dissolution certificates.
Still concerned that hackers can circumvent your bank's security questions by digging up your mother's maiden name, your birthplace and the name of your high school? At least they don't know the name of your first pet or favorite movie — unless, that is, you post them on Facebook.