An Online Privacy Adventure

Renee Montagne explores the various bits of private information available online with Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. They use Steve Inskeep as a test case.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week on MORNING EDITION, we're talking about privacy. And this morning, we have something of an experiment. Renee, I've been spying on you, and discovered you've been spying on me.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Wait, how did you find that out?

INSKEEP: Oh, well, you asked me in advance. But any way, please, go ahead.

MONTAGNE: Well, yes. Indeed, we asked Nora Paul to help with some digging that I thought might be interesting to do. She's director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota. And she joined us from the studios of Minnesota Public Radio.

Ms. NORA PAUL (Director, Institute for New Media Studies, University of Minnesota): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So, you've got a computer with you there. Where do we begin this adventure into Steve's online privacy?

Ms. PAUL: First of all, my first stop is Google. And so, I Googled Steve Inskeep, and really, didn't find very much. Which...

MONTAGNE: I think that might upset him.

Ms. PAUL: Well, turns out I had spelled his name with two N's instead of one. So, once I went back in and spelled Inskeep correctly, there was a great thing that told me where he was raised in Carmel, Indiana, and that he was a graduate of Morehead State University. And that he lives in the District of Columbia.

MONTAGNE: What's the next thing you would go to, to dig a little deeper into Steve's life?

Ms. PAUL: Well, having gotten that clue that he lived in D.C., I was able to go into U.S. Search. And they said that there was a Steven Alan Inskeep, and that he's 37 years old. And there were several addresses found for him: three in District of Columbia, one in Hoboken, New Jersey, one in Astoria, New York, and one in Long Island City. With this information, if you want to take it further and get the advanced background search, which would give you things like property value, bankruptcies, you have to pay $39.95. And then, if you want it within an hour, then you pay another $20.

MONTAGNE: You just mentioned an address, and that seems to be a key thing. Is there gateway information? That is, a couple of things, that if one could get a hold of, it opens a door into a lot of information?

Ms. PAUL: Well, certainly, if you have social security number, you're golden. You could be sure that this is the person that you are talking about, because otherwise, without some other specific identifying information, you can't be entirely sure that you're following the path of the right person.

MONTAGNE: Now, so far, in this little minimal search of yours, we haven't discovered anything too juicy about Steve.

Ms. PAUL: No. It depends on why you're trying to go find information. If your daughter is getting ready to go start dating somebody, you might want to check his name real quick in the, you know, the criminal records. Or, in the case of that gentleman who invited somebody into his house...

MONTAGNE: This is our story yesterday, a roommate who took over his life, if you will.

Ms. PAUL: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And certain information.

Ms. PAUL: So, if you're really, what you're trying to find out is somebody isn't something, there are really useful ways to do that.

MONTAGNE: So far, it would suggest that Steve, our Steve Inskeep, lives a quiet life.

Ms. PAUL: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: I mean, if you had wanted to know if he'd served, you know, a long prison term, would we have come across it, in so far in what you're looking at?

Ms. PAUL: If you decide that's what you want to know, then there are paths to go check criminal records. In fact, this advanced background search that I did for Steve, for another $15, it would do a nationwide criminal search.

MONTAGNE: Probably not worth it, though, right?

Ms. PAUL: No. Yeah. I don't, I hope not. I imagine your human relations people did a little background, and, yeah.

MONTAGNE: So do we. Well, for the average person, someone who may not have found his way into the newspapers for any particular reason, that sort of thing, is there anything private?

Ms. PAUL: Well, this is what's intriguing to me about the whole notion of privacy. There's the records gathered about you because of your life as a citizen. There are increasingly, records gathered about you in your life as a consumer; and those are records that you volunteer, you know, every time that you order something on Amazon, and things like that. And then, there's information about people that's very personal, that's being contributed by themselves in blogs, in news group discussions, and things like that. And that may well be where there will be more long-term invasion of privacy, because it's really getting at people's thoughts, opinions, and things like that.

MONTAGNE: Which, say young people, teenagers maybe, might put on with nary a thought for 20 years down the road.

Ms. PAUL: Exactly. Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Now, given what we've found about Steve, think he should be alarmed?

Ms. PAUL: If he was trying to stay entirely private about where he lives, perhaps. But there's a whole lot of offline ways to have your privacy invaded, if that's what somebody is intent on doing.

MONTAGNE: Nora Paul, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. PAUL: Sure.

MONTAGNE: Nora Paul is director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota.

And Steve, I hesitate to ask, but let me ask. What you think about all this?

INSKEEP: Well, I'm relieved to find that at least the internet doesn't yet do pronunciation very well, because it's Carmel, Indiana not Carmel. Carmel is the name. But other than that, everything seems fine.

MONTAGNE: Well, we continue these discussions. Tomorrow, a company actually doing this kind of research about us with our permission.

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