[Updated] Ancestry.com Employees Caught Throwing Away Thousands Of Records They Were Supposed To Be Archiving For The US Government
from the file-under:-wastebasket dept
[Update: Amy Rubenstein of Ancestry.com has pointed out a few inaccuracies within this post and I have corrected information as needed. Some claims made are still open for debate, so rather than strike statements that are less than wholly resolved, I have added Rubenstein’s statements directly after these sentences.]
Ancestry.com has long been a government contractor, converting millions of hard copy records into electronic files. In conjunction with the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA), it has performed monumental tasks like indexing and scanning all US Census records from 1790 through 1930. Or has it?
The private company operates with minimal oversight and its relationship with the NARA is a “closely-guarded secret.” [Rubenstein says Ancestry.com’s archival work is overseen by “government employees and monitors.” This would suggest more oversight than Matthew M. Aid — intel historian and NSA expert — asserts there is in his introduction to the news article quoted here. Rubenstein made no statement concerning the “closely guarded” secrecy of Ancestry.com’s relationship with the NARA.] This lack of accountability has naturally resulted in, shall we say, lackluster efforts from its employees. (via Unredacted)
An employee of ancestry.com who was working at the federal records center in north St. Louis County was fired for allegedly throwing out draft-card information, a federal administrator said.
Bryan McGraw, director of the National Personnel Records Center, said Friday that his staff recovered all the papers, some of them from a trash can. The incident on March 12 prompted the federal agency to halt contract work by Ancestry Inc., which operates as ancestry.com, at St. Louis and four other sites.
The currently-on-hold project involved scanning in 49 million draft records. Apparently, an employee found it easier to satisfy his/her supervisor
to hit quotas by dumping files in the nearest trashcan… or glove? [Rubenstein says ancestry.com does not “hand out quotas.” It monitors employee efficiency by “tracking average scanning output,” but does not issue quotas directly to its employees.]
McGraw said the employee apparently had been warned about productivity by his supervisor and tried to dispose of a pending stack of supplemental papers that had been attached to individual draft cards. McGraw said another person found some of the records on the employee’s desk and others stuffed into a latex glove in a trash can.
This isn’t the first time ancestry.com’s been caught destroying files it’s supposed to be archiving. [Ancestry.com’s Rubenstein points out that the company did not take over the archival efforts at this location until August 26, 2014. The incidents discussed here occurred in 2012, with the investigation finally wrapping up in 2014. I have amended the article title to reflect the fact that ancestry.com employees did NOT dispose of “thousands of records.” According to Rubenstein, the number of records trashed in this recent incident was “slightly over 100. My apologies to ancestry.com for stating both incidents happened under ancestry.com’s purview.] Last year, employees at the same location were caught disposing of thousands of records.
National Personnel Records Center workers here dumped, stashed or otherwise destroyed 4,000 records of individual federal employees, the head of the National Archives revealed in a memo this week.
That alone would be bad enough, but the documents the St. Louis Post-Dispatch acquired suggested that the problem had been ongoing for years.
A July 30, 2012, letter from the Office of Inspector General said that as the old records center facility in Overland was being decommissioned in 2011, employees found documents hidden in pillars and stuffed in the space between the floors and the lowest shelves.
This finding — along with the recovery of supposedly-archived documents in the woods [!] outside of Alton, Missouri, led to the NARA contacting 132 veterans to inform them that their personal information may have been exposed.
It did not, however, lead to the pulling of contracts from ancestry.com. [See above note about ancestry.com’s takeover date.] Sentences were handed down to two employees — one of whom threw away or destroyed 850 of the 1,200 records he’d been assigned. Others were allowed to resign rather than face punishment for their actions. The exposure of ancestry.com’s carelessness resulted in little more than the NARA’s Inspector General suggesting someone should do something about maintaining the integrity of the records entrusted to the commercial service.
This isn’t the full extent of ancestry.com’s abuse in relation to its federal archival efforts. Despite not being the true “owner” of the documents and the information contained therein, the company has done everything from issuing bogus DMCA takedown notices on by-default public domain records to locking up US government-produced records behind paywalls. As to the latter, it claims it was done for “security reasons,” in order to prevent Social Security numbers of the recently-deceased from being exploited by identity thieves. What ancestry.com’s spokesperson failed to mention in public statements is that Congressional pressure forced the redaction of Social Security numbers. Moving the records behind a paywall was just a fortuitous byproduct of its earlier careless exposure of SSNs — a decision made for purported “security” reasons but one that allowed it to monetize publicly-funded, public domain records.
The issue here is the lack of oversight. Private companies often provide essential services to the government, often at a fraction of the cost of the government performing the work itself. But these government agencies need to be closely watching their hired help and to react more quickly, and with more severity, when the relationship is abused — on either end. Ancestry.com’s work is essential to the establishment of a permanent home for indexed government records.
Unfortunately, the oversight needed to prevent the sort of behavior exhibited here isn’t in place and that’s going to create holes in the public record and prevent ancestry.com from being considered a trustworthy repository of public information. [As noted in updated sections above, ancestry.com is monitored by government employees. Obviously, the oversight has a few flaws, but there is some form of oversight in place.]