On February 18, Dr. Alan Westin, a scholar who helped define and justify the field of privacy law, passed away. He was a professor of Public Law & Government Emeritus at Columbia University. He also published the book Privacy and Freedom and served as editor of the Civil Liberties Review.
Much of Dr. Westin’s most influential work was before the popularization of the computer, but was integral in defining what privacy is in the age of mass information. Dr. Westin saw privacy as “an individual’s right to control edit, manage, and delete information about them[selves] and decide when, how, and to what extent that information is communicated to others.” His work contributed to many modern privacy laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974, which regulated how the government could use personal information. Dr. Westin said his interest in the subject was sparked by the McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950′s. He often focused on topics like illegal wiretapping.
Although Dr. Westin helped define and defend privacy rights, he was careful to balance what he perceived as national security with individual privacy. He argued in favor of wiretapping if there was a threat to national security. He later defended the USA PATRIOT ACT of 2001 as “justified.”
In recent years, Dr. Westin attempted investigating Google and social networking sites for their use of personal information. Jeffrey Rosen, with whom he worked, said, “He recognized that the problems of protecting privacy are now so daunting that they can’t be dealt with by the law alone, but require a mix of legal, social, and technical solutions.”
Dr. Westin’s important contributions to what privacy is and should be remain a vital part of our national debate about security and privacy.