Google Docs Goes Native

Google Docs was once an application that was “like Microsoft Word” or “like PowerPoint”, and could read and write files from those programs as well as Excel. But mainly, you understood that you were editing your file and storing it, in Google’s proprietary format.

Then, in January 2010, Google announced that they would allow users to store any file format in their Google Docs environment. That started to look like another cloud storage offering. Frankly, it didn’t make a lot of sense to upload files you cannot even open in that environment. Google took a big step toward addressing that week, making some key formats natively viewable within Google Docs.

On their blog, they say:

The Google Docs Viewer is used by millions of people every day to quickly view PDFs, Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint presentations online. Not only is viewing files in your browser far more secure than downloading and opening them locally, but it also saves time and doesn’t clutter up your hard-drive with unwanted files.

Today we’re excited to launch support for 12 new file types:

  • Microsoft Excel (.XLS and .XLSX)
  • Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 / 2010 (.PPTX)
  • Apple Pages (.PAGES)
  • Adobe Illustrator (.AI)
  • Adobe Photoshop (.PSD)
  • Autodesk AutoCad (.DXF)
  • Scalable Vector Graphics (.SVG)
  • PostScript (.EPS, .PS)
  • TrueType (.TTF)
  • XML Paper Specification (.XPS)

Not only does this round out support for the major Microsoft Office file types (we now support DOC, DOCX, PPT, PPTX, XLS and XLSX), but it also adds quick viewing capabilities for many of the most popular and highly-requested document and image types.

In Gmail, these types of attachments will now show a “View” link, and clicking on this link will bring up the Google Docs Viewer.

For me, one of the few annoying aspects of how Gmail and Google Docs work together has been that, in the early days, simply opening up a Word document in my Gmail would automatically create a document in Google Docs, or that it wouldn’t allow me to preview it, and would force me to download the file. Now, I will simply be able to View these documents, and have them disappear into the browser cache at the end of the session.

More Technology News for Genealogists


Earlier this week, Apple announced a new subscription payment model for the iPad.

Google responded yesterday with a much more flexible subscription model using Google Checkout (a PayPal competitor), and providing 10% in revenue for Google (in comparison with Apple’s 30%). Google does not require that the in-app purchase price be at least as inexpensive as any other web offering of the product. It’s a more open program, and hopefully will gain traction and help foster a more sustainable sales model for content providers.

Until and unless other models come along, expect to see genealogical content providers, as they move into the tablet space, to opt for the Google pricing model, which will better align with their operating profit margins.


SlideShare is a site that allows you to upload PowerPoint-style slides to share with others. (I post all my slides at SlideShare: This week they announced a free 1-click conferencing product, Zipcast. I have not tried it, but it looks interesting, as most conferencing systems that share slides require that the slides be uploaded in real time, as images of from the person sharing the slides. Zipcast might be faster, because the slides will not need to be uploaded during the meeting, and will already be optimized for web viewing at SlideShare.

Don’t be surprised if your next genealogy meeting does not happen in person, but instead over SlideShare’s Zipcast.

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Subscriptions on the Apple App Store

Magazines on the iPad
Apple's iPad

Apple announced today that they will be supporting subscriptions on the AppStore. A lot of us have been thinking that would make for a good day, as it never made sense for owners of the iPad to only be able to buy something like a magazine for the iPad one issue at a time (often for more than a print single copy).

However, the way that Apple is doing this is causing a great deal of consternation outside of Cupertino.

First, they are demanding 30% of every subscription sale. This is a similar rate that is paid on magazines at the news stand, but not having to provide that discount to magazine stands is part of what allows magazine subscriptions to be so inexpensive. Apple does allow people who sell subscriptions to do so “outside the app.” But, again, the bargain they are asking people to make is draconian. In their press release, they write:

“However, Apple does require that if a publisher chooses to sell a digital subscription separately outside of the app, that same subscription offer must be made available, at the same price or less, to customers who wish to subscribe from within the app.” In other words, the time honored tradition of the “cut-out-the-middleman” buy direct discount is not going to be allowed.

This means that Amazon cannot sell books in the iOS version of the Kindle reader, even though that reader only has a link to Amazon’s website to make that purchase. (For titles sold through Amazon’s Digital Text Program, authors and publishers get a 70% royalty. Simple math shows that if Amazon gives Apple the remaining 30%, they will be spending money to support publishers, authors, and Apple, without a penny going to pay for Amazon’s server farms, let alone its employees or shareholders.)

Amazon does not have a similar policy. If you sell a book on Amazon, you can set the price, or let Amazon set guidelines on the price ($2.99 – $9.99 and 20% less than the cheapest print version of the title), and get a better percentage of the sales price. But there’s nothing to stop someone from selling a Kindle-formatted book for $9.99 through Amazon and $7.99 directly from them. This is called the agency model, and it means that when Amazon acts as the publisher or author’s agent, they get income, when they don’t … they don’t get income, and furthermore, they make no stipulations about how much the author or publisher can sell the Kindle book for outside of the Amazon store.

At best, this announcement by Apple will make legitimate vendors of books, magazines, and audio and video think twice before offering their services at current prices through the App Store, since doing so would incur a steep fee that they did not have before. At worst, some companies will play, but others will be left out. It seems like a sure way for Apple to make good revenue from those who remain, and to stifle competition from the likes of Hulu and Netflix (video rentals), Amazon (books and magazines), and Rhapsody (music).

A comprehensive article on the reactions appears on ReadWriteWeb: “A Round-Up of Reactions: Apple’s Greedy, Anti-Competitive, Evil, Brilliant Announcement.” This article points out that the Wall Street Journal muses about the legality of the announcement:

“Apple Inc.’s new subscription service could draw antitrust scrutiny, according to law professors,” writes the Journal’s Nathan Koppel. According to the article, the antitrust argument hinges on two primary points – whether or not Apple is exerting “anticompetitive pressures on price” and whether Apple is a “dominant player in the market.”

But what does this mean for genealogists? We may never know for sure. If Apple’s strategy goes forward, but actually does have a chilling and anticompetitive impact, a lot of content and services, some not yet conceived of, may not come to a dominant platform. Genealogists are ravenous consumers of books, including e-books and audio books. This may delay or stop the delivery of a lot of titles that might otherwise have been available. Hopefully, Apple will re-think their announcement, at least as it concerns how vendors price and sell their content off the iPad.

Using the Wayback Machine for Genealogy

Geocities Has Closed
Geocities Has Closed

The Wayback Machine, a project of The Internet Archive, (current version:; new beta version at is an attempt to archive the complete content of the Internet. Brewster Kahle, the co-founder of the Internet Archive spoke about the project at the Saturday keynote address at RootsTech 2011.

The key purpose of the Internet Archive is to make the Internet available for future historians and other researchers, in order that they might know what we were saying and doing in this often ephemeral environment called the Internet.

But it can also help us in the here and now. If you ever encounter a publicly available site that has disappeared, you may find it elsewhere on Google, but, failing that, you may find it in the Internet Archive.

For example, on an old Rootsweb page that I am in the process of migrating to this site, I have a link that is no longer working. (As the lingo goes, I have “link rot”.)

I try to link to:

When I try to navigate to this site, I get a message saying:

“Sorry, the GeoCities website you were trying to visit is no longer available.
GeoCities has closed, but there’s a lot more to explore on Yahoo!”

This does not offer much solace. However, when I go to the Wayback Machine and enter the URL I was searching for, I receive the following link:*/

Alternately, if I go to the beta version of the new Wayback Machine and enter this search I get to:*/

This page shows me the various snapshots the Internet Archive got around to making of this page. When I click on the most recent, I see that it has a link to a new location:

I can also look at other snapshots to see what the site looked like at that time.

The Internet Archive cannot instantaneously capture the whole Internet, but every couple of months, it traverses most of the public web, captures what has changed, and moves on. You should not rely on it, either as a web user, or as a webmaster, however it can prove very handy at times. Try it the next time you run across a link that you are sure used to work, but no longer does.

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RootsTech 2011: Towards a New Genealogical Data Model

On Saturday at the RootsTech conference in Salt Lake City, there was an open discussion session on genealogical data standards. There has been a heated discussion, literally going on for years, about a new data model that could replace GEDCOM. A new GEDCOM standard would address GEDCOM’s gaps – for example, being able to store evidentiary analysis within the data model – and be a living dynamic standard, unlike GEDCOM, which has been static since 1996.

In the first hour, the discussion identified several issues with the data model:

  • Data in Proprietary Formats – Because of gaps in GEDCOM, and the lack of a standards body to address this issue, most software vendors developed their own proprietary extensions, which limited the ability to share data.
  • Lack of Persistent URLs (PURLs)
  • Unstructured Text
  • Tag & Link Issues
  • Inconsistent Search Experience
  • Data Versioning (Diff/Merge)
  • Inability to Transfer Rich Data (rich media)
  • Inability to do Cross-Repository Search
  • Documentation (in other words, capturing the source of a genealogical statement, the ability to provide
  • Key as seen (Representation) – In other words, how do we normalize data while preserving the original “as-keyed” version?
  • Static data interchange

After the first hour, devoted to creating this list, we were to vote on buckets of technological or feature issues to come up with one or two we could discuss. For me, the biggest issue was not any of these technical issues, it was the lack of a governance model. Since no one was signed up to maintain GEDCOM, it did not change with the times, and died as a standard; in other words, people saw gaps and addressed them in a proprietary way, since there was no way to get issues addressed within the standard.

I got up and suggested we talk about how we build a working governance model instead of the issues that the governance model would help us solve. For more than a decade, people have been lamenting the lack of a standards body to adjudicate issues, develop a common standard, and submit it for public review. At the same time, people have pointed out the feature gaps, and proposed ways to address them. For the feature gap discussion to have an effect, however, we need to have a place to have these discussions that is actually designed to maintain a working standard. Lack of governance, not lack of technology, is the issue. We voted, and changed the direction of the meeting to discuss governance.

It was at about this time that Tom Creighton, the CTO of FamilySearch, got up and announced that FamilySearch is nearly ready to announce a new proposed data model. This changed the meeting immediately. Instead of an open discussion, it became more like a press conference, with Tom fielding questions about what they have done, when the work will be shared, and so on. There was not a lot that he was able to divulge at this point.

Key portions of the new proposed standard are based on the GenTech genealogical data model owned by the National Genealogical Society (full disclosure, I am on the Board of the NGS). The decision to make the new proposed data model public and free has not yet been made by the management at FamilySearch, but is being discussed. This means that there cannot be a date set for the launch of the new standard, as it could remain the intellectual property of FamilySearch, and unavailable outside of FamilySearch. (Mr. Creighton said that they had discussed the fact that they were developing a new standard with several software vendors, but had not provided any of them any more detail than that they were working on something.)

This is an exciting development in the intersection of genealogy and technology. If FamilySearch decides to share their work, and if a governance body can be identified or set up, and finally if that governance body has the trust of the genealogical community, including:

  • the major desktop and mobile application developers
  • the major web databases
  • the NGS
  • NEHGS (New England Historic Genealogical Society)
  • FGS (the Federation of Genealogical Societies)
  • BCG (the Board for Certification of Genealogists)
  • APG (the Association of Professional Genealogists)

we could be near the start of a much more rich technology environment. A new data model, addressing issues with GEDCOM and upgraded and changed through a community governance model could lead to integrated set of independently developed software tools that would allow people to represent their research better than they can with GEDCOM, and better share their data or move it from one vended product to another.

It sounds a little like Shangri-la as I write it here, but we are talking about the incredible potential that would be unleashed if most software vendors did not have to fix independently (or ignore) issues with the current data model, and could instead focus on the next new way to access and work with genealogical data.

Update, 17 February 2011: A summary of the meeting discussed here has been posted on the FamilySearch wiki:

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RootsTech 2011: Day 3

Internet Archive
Internet Archive

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, gave an incredible keynote address this morning.

His non-profit has been digitizing and providing on the Internet all kinds of media. As he said, “We are in the business of giving information away.” He briefly mentioned “born digital” data, but focused his discussion on the data we all have in shoeboxes, what he called the “canonical box ‘o stuff.”

The Internet Archives has 23 scanning centers in 6 countries. For example, they have digitized documents from the Leo Baeck Institute, and did so while removing private information via remote curation over the web.

Mr. Kahle also discussed their digitization of video content (8mm, Super8, 16mm,  video tape). He pointed out that some of this kind of conversion is available in the consumer market, for about $200 / hour. Higher grade (HD-quality transfers are also available, but are much more expensive.

Specifically in the genealogical field, Mr. Kahle said that the Internet Archive is involved in creating a free genealogical library – partnering with FamilySearch and the Allen County Library. Recently, the Internet Archive completed digitizing the 1790-1930 Census and making it available for free. They are now working on digitizing passenger records. Soon, they will be announcing a partnership with libraries that will allow for 80,000 e-books to be “loaned” from the library to patrons who are in the library.

For me, this was all powerful, transformative information. But I was most interested in Mr. Kahle’s discussion of print-on-demand digital bookmobiles, which can provide books as people need them, at a very low cost. (One example was that Alice in Wonderland costs about $1 to print and bind.) According to Mr. Kahle, a Harvard study has shown that it takes a library $3 to loan a book, so $1 to give a book away should be a reasonable price. This is being used to provide printed books free in India, Egypt, and Uganda.

One of the most moving portions of the discussion was the fact that the Internet Archive has doubled, to more than 1 million, the number of books available to the blind and text-disabled in the DAISY format for automated readers.

A key issue for any archive, Mr. Kahle pointed out is institutional responsibility: How long, and at what level can a company, or any institution be trusted to store information. He told us not to trust that Flickr, Google, or even his non-profit would be around, or make the right decisions when it counted. So, his recommendation is to not only have one copy in one institution. He said that the Library in Alexandria burned, yes, but it already had lost many of the important texts that it had gathered because of institutional neglect: “the new guys didn’t like the old stuff around.”

In 2002, the Internet Archive handed 200 TB of their data to the Library of Alexandria, which reciprocated with their collection of digitized Arabic materials. These kinds of large scale swap agreements are critical to the redundancy needed to ensure that we do not have another loss similar to what we lost at Alexandria, books by Aristotle, the other plays of Euripides … At this point, the whole Internet Archive is stored in three locations: San Francisco, Alexandria, and Amsterdam. Mr. Kahle acknowledged that an earthquake zone, the Middle East, and a flood plain were perhaps not the best choices, but they were not planning on stopping there.

For us, as genealogists, Mr. Kahle poses the following questions, which should make us think hard about the responsibility we have to take care of our data and documents:

  • Can we learn the stories of our ancestors?
  • Will our descendants know our story?

The RootsTech conference was a great success. More than 3,000 attendees were there, making it one of the biggest, if not the biggest genealogy gathering in the US. Next year, the second RootsTech conference will be held at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City, Utah from 2-4 February. I plan to be there.

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RootsTech 2011: Day 2

Day 2 of RootsTech started with a spirited keynote address by Curt Witcher of the Allen County Public Library on “The Changing Face of Genealogy.” His point was: The world is going digital and going there quickly. Get on board, or be left behind.

Brian Pugh of FamilySearch presented a powerful talk on how the new FamilySearch website has utilized cloud services (primarily from Amazon Web Services: to provide world class website in a cost-efficient manner. The strategy has allowed them to auto-scale up and down their services as needed. Additionally, they are able to create data snapshots to quickly build new prototypes of their site for development and testing. They use Amazon S3 as a shared filesystem for dynamic content, though the performance of S3 is not designed for serving up images, and so on, so they cache the data stored on S3 for actual delivery to web browsers.

One thing they are doing on the FamilySearch website is utilizing Amazon Elastic IPs to allow for “hot” deployment of new versions of the site. They can build the new version of the site, test it, and then in a matter of seconds, have Amazon redirect the IP address of the website to the new site, while keeping the old site in reserve. If they need to fall back to the old site, it’s again only a matter of seconds.

They also use Amazon MapReduce to perform complex computations.

FamilySearch engineers have made available programming language for creating cloud based systems, available at: This allows managers of cloud environments to quickly issue “verbs” such as

  • Deploy
  • Configure
  • Shutdown
  • Snapshot

One key thing that Mr. Pugh said about Amazon’s offering in this space, is that it is being widely used. Among others, he mentioned that the New York Times, Major League Baseball, Netflix, 3M, Activision, ESPN, NASDAQ, The Guardian, and Razorfish (and I can add the New England Historic Genealogy Society, based on the Friday luncheon.)

Later in the day, I was able to attend a viewing of “Who Do You Think You Are?” at the Family History Library. They gave out raffle items, and I won a copy of Ancestry for the Mac. I then took advantage of the Library being open until midnight, researching my Hills, Johnsons, and Crows in Howard County and Nance County, Nebraska.

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RootsTech 2011: Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of RootsTech, a new conference on genealogy and technology held in Salt Lake City and sponsored by FamilySearch International, the genealogy information arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The conference started with a little bit of confusion: It seemed that there was a rush to the registration table just prior to the keynote address. This kind of thing can be minimized, of course, by opening registration the day before, or by sending all the lightweight items (tickets to lunches and events, lanyard and badge) ahead of time, and then simply exchanging one of those tickets for a standard backpack or laptop case and any other schwag and late-breaking news.

In any case, the organizers offered to let people register later; they were not going to check badges for the first event. This was something I definitely took advantage of, since I didn’t want to miss the talk by Shane R. Robison (Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Technology Officer, Hewlett Packard) A World of Information and Jay Verkler (CEO, FamilySearch International) Turning Roots, Branches, Trees into Nodes, Links, Graphs.

I am not sure what the more genealogically and less technologically minded attendees thought of Shane’s speech. It was a well-delivered discussion of the future of cloud computing and globalization. I found it fascinating. Of course, with so much of the world so populated, and with these other population centers (China, India, Brazil) poised to dramatically move into more of a middle-class existence, there are serious challenges for global sustainability. I was glad to see that Mr. Robison had sustainability in the center of his group of priorities for Hewlett Packard.

Mr. Verkler got up and tied this all back into genealogy, pointing out that cloud computing is happening in a big way already in the genealogy space: All of the new FamilySearch website is hosted on Amazon EC2 servers in the cloud, not on servers FamilySearch owns itself.

Later in the day, I spent some time manning the NGS booth, looked around at the exhibit hall, and attended some talks. IBM has a space in the exhibit hall with games: non-virtual (pool, air hockey, chess) and virtual (Microsoft Kinect). They were also giving away massages. I also attended jQuery and Web Services, a talk by Logan Allred. He was cogent and clear. Over lunch, I heard Chris van der Kuyl of brightsolid discuss Family History in the Age of the Cloud. He didn’t really talk about the cloud much, but it was an interesting romp through the intersection of technology and genealogy, and a good introduction to brightsolid as a company.

Jimmy Zimmerman’s Ruby Library for FamilySearch API was also a great talk, so full of details, it was practically a code review. I regret to say that Barry Ewell’s talk, Digitally Preserving Your Family Heritage, did not impress me. He’s very knowledgeable about the topic, but his speaking style grated on me. He would start a sentence, stop in the middle, say a couple of sentences that were relevant to him, then finish the original sentence. Maybe he was having an off day, or was a little nervous in the lights, but it didn’t make for a good presentation in my opinion. Michael Buck’s Top Ten Web Applications Security Risks (based on OWASP recommendation) was clear, well thought out, and easy to follow.

At the end of the day, brightsolid sponsored a Night at the Planetarium. There were nachos, sandwiches, and popcorn, but also IMAX films, as well as all the planetarium exhibits. A great end to the day … except that I also headed to the Family History Library, which was open until 11.

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Multiracial and Multiethnic Trees

New York Times: Mixed America's Family Trees
New York Times: Mixed America's Family Trees

The New York Times has an article and an accompanying interactive feature that allows users to explore the American phenomenon of multiracial and multiethnic families.

The story points out that the government uses statistics on race and ethnicity to address race- and ethnic-based inequities, however the increasingly complex nature of family backgrounds is causing a shift from traditional “select one” to more accurate “select all that are appropriate” measures. The story features a young woman, “Michelle López-Mullins — a university student who is of Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee and Cherokee descent” and notes that the Education Department would classify her as “Hispanic.” This obviously over simplifies her background, and thus, from my point of view makes the data and conclusions drawn from it questionable. The US Census tracks 63 combinations of racial and ethnic categories, and allows people to select as many as apply to them.

According to the article, things have changed dramatically to the extent that currently 1 in 7 marriages in the US are multiracial or multiethnic. The current wave of immigration, as well as falling barriers between ethnic and racial groups, as well as diminishing of stigmas regarding multiracial and multiethnic families.

If you click on the image to the Multiracial and Multiethnic Categorizationright, you will see some of the different ways one individual is categorized. (In addition to government categories, the Times gives us an idea of what Ms. López-Mullins, her father, and one of her friends think about her background.)

This is of critical importance to genealogists. In the future, someone mining government documents of their ancestors will be enabled, if the information is accurate and detailed enough, to get new clues. If the information is watered down or confusing, with multiple standards within Federal agencies, not to mention across the states, the work of the future genealogist will be more difficult.

The interactive feature I mentioned allows you to share a small family tree along with the ethnic and racial backgrounds that make it up, with pictures, if you have some handy. You may also add an audio file of up to 10 MB of audio explaining the tree.

Cyber Security

How to Protect Yourself in a Connected World

As genealogists, we are often online — whether using scanned records from a subscription site, searching through transcriptions on GenWeb, volunteering for a local society, or sending e-mail to a recently found cousin. Being online as much as we are, we assume some risks. While these risks are manageable, and do not exceed the value of computing and Internet use for genealogists, it is important to assess your risk level, and take steps to limit potential attacks. Let me walk you through some of the things you should consider.

Create Secure Passwords

With all of the passwords we need to create and remember, it is tempting to have a single, memorable password for e-mail, subscription sites, and financial institutions. Doing so puts you at risk. If your password is memorable for you it can probably be guessed by someone else, or by a computer program. And if you only have one password, if someone guesses it, that person has access to any and all of your accounts. The best password security will include passwords that cannot be guessed. They should not be a date, a name, or a commonly known word found in any dictionary. Computer programs exist that can try numerous possibilities to hack your password. Instead, your passwords should have a combination of upper- and lower-case characters, numerals, and symbols. There are websites that can produce random, secure passwords; for example, PC Tools offers one Of course, having dozens of passwords, all of them difficult to remember, presents its own problems— human memory has its limits.

There is the tried-and-true method of writing things down, but you certainly do not want to lose a notebook of your passwords. Since you might not want to take your password list out of the house, you will not be able to log in to your subscription research sites from Starbucks. Another method, which I recommend, is storing your passwords in a password manager, either online or offline. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it works. Programs such as RoboForm and websites such as LastPass allow you to encrypt passwords and then store them on your computer’s hard disk, or in the cloud.

RoboForm runs on Windows and stores all the password data on your hard drive in one of a number of encryption formats. You can also purchase a version that runs on a USB key, so you can take it with you. LastPass stores your passwords in an encrypted form in the cloud, in other words, potentially on a number of servers across the Internet. For added security, you can get a USB key to provide another level of validation. Access to the passwords requires that the key, which is specially configured for your account, be plugged into your computer, and that you know the e-mail address and password of the account. If you lose the key, you can reset the account by a request on the website that you then must respond to from your previously associated e-mail account.

Avoid E-mail Scams

Bulk e-mail can be a very financially efficient way for people to steal data. Spammers can send out millions of messages for almost nothing, and if only a few people respond in ways they can exploit, their campaign has been financially successful. The main method of e-mail scam these days has been called “phishing.” In a phishing attack, the scammer sends an e-mail that pretends to be for a legitimate purpose, requesting that you log in to its site, send your password by return e-mail, or in some other way to provide the scammer with some of the credentials (user name/password combinations) that would allow access to one or more of your accounts or your private data. The e-mail can look very official, but often has some tell tale signs: words are misspelled and URLs are slightly different, either in a way you can readily see or underneath the HTML code, which you can observe by hovering your mouse
over them.

To protect yourself, the best first step to have good spam filtering. G-mail from Google includes some of the best spam filtering available. G-mail is also free and is easy to set up. Very rarely do I see a phishing attack in my G-mail inbox; but the spam folder on G-mail is full of phishing attacks. In addition to e-mail filtering, you can set up lists of e-mail addresses and domains so as always to allow (white list) or disallow (black list) mail from those sources. For example, if you want to make sure that mail from your cousin Sheila gets though, you would white list her e-mail address. On the other hand, if you had received malicious e-mail from (not, you might black list any mail coming from the domain Many service providers provide this service, building a black list of known or suspected sources of spam and malware.

Once you have spam filtering, and even if you have a black list and white list set up, some phishing attacks will get through. To keep your data safe, use caution when responding to e-mail. The e-mail address the mail comes from might be other than what appears in your e-mail software. If you believe that your bank may actually be contacting you via e-mail, do not simply click on the e-mail link, hit the reply button, or call a phone number in the e-mail. Contact the bank directly, either by typing its Web address in your browser yourself, sending e-mail where you enter the address yourself, or by calling the bank with a phone number you already have on file for them. If this was a legitimate e-mail from your bank, a copy of it will be in your online account, and it should also be available to the bank’s customer service personnel when you call.

Thwart Viruses and Malware

Malware is software that is designed to do harm. This software can be embedded into software programs or files, and can be hidden in what look like harmless websites. This is a risk whether you are on a Windows or a Mac computer.

Over the years, Macintosh enthusiasts like me have boasted that its operating system is immune to these kinds of attacks. Despite the fact that we can be annoying, even PC devotees have to admit that the number of malware programs directly aimed at the Mac OS has remained low. There have been no major virus outbreaks on Mac OS X, but this may be on the verge of changing. Even the Mac OS X has to use browsers to navigate the Web, and any software designed to request files from the Internet will have vulnerabilities. At the CanSecWest digital security conference in Vancouver this Spring, computer security engineers demonstrated the ability to exploit Internet Explorer on Windows, Firefox on the Macintosh, and Safari on the Macintosh and on iPhones. (Google Chrome was the only browser on which no one was able to demonstrate security holes.) Another aspect of anti-virus considerations is that users who run Windows through BootCamp or a third-party Windows virtual machine, have Macintoshes that are vulnerable to both Macintosh and PC viruses.

What can you do about this? First of all, you should install virus protection software. On Windows, the best known programs are McAfee VirusScan and Norton AntiVirus; on the Mac OS, choices include Norton AntiVirus, McAfee VirusScan, and Intego VirusBarrier. Next, you should keep your operating system and browsers up to date. Operating system and browser developers regularly release patches (small fixes) to their software when they are able to thwart a known security threat. If you set your preferences to allow download and installation of these security patches, you will be less vulnerable to malware than you would otherwise be.

Genealogists prefer to focus their time on research and on evaluating sources, but the ability these days to do research depends on access to the Internet and to the files that have been scanned, downloaded, and created. If you invest a minimal amount of time in learning how to address password security, phishing attacks, and malware, you will likely avoid much more time-consuming and frustrating situations in the future, where you might lose some of your genealogical data or have your computer raided.

This article, which originally appeared in a slightly different form in the National Genealogical Society‘s NGS Magazine, is republished here by permission.