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Alan Westin, scholar who helped shape internet privacy law, dies at 83

Alan Westin, scholar who helped shape internet privacy law, dies at 83

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alan westin obituary
alan westin obituary

Alan F. Westin, the lawyer and political scientist whose work shaped the way we define online privacy, died last week at the age of 83. As the New York Times reports, Westin had spent the past 40 years teaching at Columbia University, where he served as emeritus professor of public law and government. He is widely credited with spearheading the development of contemporary privacy law, most notably through his seminal book, Privacy and Freedom, published in 1967.

"He was the most important scholar of privacy since Louis Brandeis," said Jeffrey Rosen, a professor of law at George Washington University, making reference to the Supreme Court Justice who, in the late 19th century, became the first to define privacy as a legal right. Westin adapted Brandeis' framework to a 20th century context, defining privacy not only as a right, but as a right that citizens can control. "He transformed the privacy debate by defining privacy as the ability to control how much about ourselves we reveal to others."

"Privacy enables freedom."

When Westin published Privacy and Freedom nearly five decades ago, much of the American privacy debate centered on touchstone reproductive issues that fueled cases like Roe v. Wade. These debates helped limit the government's control over a person's body, but they failed to address looming technological factors such as wiretapping and federal or corporate surveillance. The genius of Westin's work lay in its forward-thinking approach. By arguing that citizens retained ultimate control over their personal data, he redefined privacy as an individual freedom, effectively laying the philosophical groundwork for current debates about online liberties years before the dawn of the internet.

"This concept became the cornerstone of our modern right to privacy," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times. "Part of ‘Privacy and Freedom’ is the argument that privacy enables freedom."

But Westin's philosophy on civil liberties was far from rigid. Although he stressed the importance of individual autonomy, he acknowledged that the government should be able to conduct electronic surveillance under certain circumstances — especially when national security is at risk. In a 2003 interview, for instance, he described the controversial, post-9/11 Patriot Act as "a justified piece of legislation."

"He insisted on a balance between the competing demands of privacy, disclosure and surveillance."

"He insisted on a balance between the competing demands of privacy, disclosure and surveillance," Rosen said. "Much of his work in the 1960s and ’70s appears so prescient after 9/11 and in the age of Internet."

Alan Westin died of cancer on February 18th in Saddle River, New Jersey. He is survived by his son, Jeremy, daughter Debra Westin, and three grandchildren.