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Privacy Expectations at Odds with Reality

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Privacy Expectations at Odds with Reality

Privacy Expectations at Odds with Reality

Privacy Expectations at Odds with Reality

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Steve Inskeep talks with Brian Boucher about how he discovered a roommate had stolen his Social Security number, credit card information and names of family members. It's a cautionary tale about how much our personal information is easy to collect. This conversation begins a series about privacy.


Over the course of the week we're going to address this question about our personal information. Is anything actually private.

Steve Inskeep starts with one man's horror story.


Brian Boucher could have guessed that maintaining his privacy would be a challenge. He saved money by offering to share his one-bedroom apartment. He found a roommate with an ad on the online service Craigslist. Boucher moved out into the living room, the new arrival took the bedroom. And Brian Boucher, what did you know about this guy in the beginning?

Mr. BRIAN BOUCHER (Identity Theft Victim): He was a middle-aged guy who said he was from California and was in New York working as a ghost writer. I didn't ask questions. That seemed like a private sort of undertaking to me. Mostly, he kept to himself. He was a very private person.

INSKEEP: He locked himself away in the bedroom. You slept out on what, the couch? And was there a moment when you began to think there was something strange about him?

Mr. BOUCHER: Well, yes. When things really started to get strange was when he had lived with me for four months and he had been gone for, in fact, a couple of weeks. And I got home one morning to find his room ransacked. And my things were all intact.

INSKEEP: Somebody invaded his privacy in a very traditional way. That began to seem odd. But the guy comes back, as I understand it.

Mr. BOUCHER: Right.

INSKEEP: And there comes a moment where you become even more suspicious.

Mr. BOUCHER: Right. Several months later, he disappeared again. He was gone for weeks at a time. And rent day came and went. I couldn't reach him and I thought, okay, this guy is gone. I went into his room to pack up his things and came across a file including information on me, my social security number, and then on a sheet of loose-leaf paper he had notes on my current credit card information. I must have left the bills sitting on my desk before paying them.

He had gone through my address book and gotten the names and addresses and phone numbers of all my immediate family members, even the name and number of a woman I had met at a party out of a date book of mine.

INSKEEP: We have to mention that this guy was in the apartment with you, living there. He could have stolen anything, I suppose; but instead of going for the television or a computer or the coffeepot, he went for information he could use to reconstruct your identity.

Mr. BOUCHER: Correct. I felt very violated.

INSKEEP: And you thought that this guy had gone away forever. That's why you in effect invaded his privacy by going and finding out how he'd invaded yours. Was he gone forever?

Mr. BOUCHER: He was. He had been arrested. I didn't know it at the time because I didn't know who he was. But when I eventually, shall we say, invaded his privacy yet further, he had left behind this laptop computer and when I found out what the sign-in name was on the computer, with the help of a systems administrator friend, practically just on a whim I Googled that name and the first result that came up was America's Most Wanted. My roommate had been arrested, which is the reason that he had stopped coming home.

INSKEEP: You realized that he was living there under an assumed name and when you stole the real name out of his computer, it took you five seconds to find out the truth.

Mr. BOUCHER: Google is an amazing tool. He had been wanted in San Francisco for a jewel heist of six to 10 million dollars. That was the crime that he was arrested for.

INSKEEP: What was his full real name again?

Mr. BOUCHER: Dino Lauren(ph) Smith.

INSKEEP: Was Dino Lauren Smith then in the courtroom when you finally went to testify?

Mr. BOUCHER: He was, in fact. It was very frightening. Here was the guy who had slept in the next room for nine months and who I had since come to find out was intimate with automatic weapons. And he gave me this funny little nod, with a sort of forced casualness like, Hey, roomie! Funny seeing you here. Bet you didn't expect this either.

INSKEEP: Did you have to have that dramatic moment that they always have in television courtrooms where, do you see the suspect here in the room, can you point him out?

Mr. BOUCHER: In fact, could you point him out and mention an article of clothing? Let the record note, oh, I really felt like my number is up now.

INSKEEP: Did your ex-roommate ever use your information, your Social Security number and other information?

Mr. BOUCHER: Not that I know of, no. I of course cancelled my credit cards. I checked with the financial institutions where he had my information and there had not been any misuse of it.

INSKEEP: Well, Mr. Boucher, I just want to ask one more question before we finish this discussion that's getting us started on a series of discussions about privacy. How are you going to pick your next roommate?

Mr. BOUCHER: With any luck I'm going to, for my next apartment, simply get an apartment on my own. I found my current roommates on Craigslist, and they actually don't know about this. So if this could just remain between you and me, that would be great.

INSKEEP: They don't know about this as far as they know, given what you know that they know about you.

Mr. BOUCHER: Correct. Who knows what they know.

INSKEEP: Brian Boucher is the author of an article in New York Magazine about what he learned about a roommate that learned a lot about him. Thanks very much.

Mr. BOUCHER: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: And tomorrow I peek into my co-host life to find out what can be found out about you online.

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