Gain for science is history buffs' loss

Once only charming, family trees have become a commodity fewer can access.

Mark Baard(mark@baard.com)
Feb 9, 2003

When Iceland's DeCode Genetics published an online genealogy database last month, history buffs were disappointed to learn they could access only their own family trees. DeCode itself has used the database, with family names encrypted, to exploit family pedigrees for locating disease-associated genes. But privacy laws enacted by Iceland's Parliament in light of DeCode's research now apply to the genealogies themselves, restricting who can access information that was once public.

Genealogies are "an extreme obsession" with Icelanders, said Gísli Pálsson, a University of Iceland anthropologist, "but my understanding is that people will only be able to access their own families within the database."

The Íslendingabók, or "Book of Icelanders," database was meant as, "Our way of returning something to the community," DeCode CEO Kári Stefánsson told The Scientist. Compiled from records in the Book of Settlement, written in 1125, the Family Sagas, church registers, administrative records...

Interested in reading more?

Become a Member of

Receive full access to more than 35 years of archives, as well as TS Digest, digital editions of The Scientist, feature stories, and much more!
Already a member?