Privacy Advisor

Westin’s Privacy Scholarship, Research Influenced a Generation

March 1, 2013

By Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP/US, CIPP/E

Dr. Alan Westin

Alan Westin, a groundbreaking scholar of information privacy who helped influence a generation of privacy study and the privacy profession itself, passed away Monday, February 18, at the age of 83.

“Today, literally tens of thousands of statutes, court decisions, regulations and company best practice standards, throughout the globe, are based upon” principles set forth by Westin, said friend and Arnall Golden Gregory Privacy Partner Bob Belair.

As professor emeritus of public law and government at Columbia University for more than 37 years, Westin also helped educate students of public policy and privacy beyond measure.

“He was the first to understand the implications that computer technology, as well as other kinds of automated technology, had for personal privacy,” Belair noted.

Indiana University Prof. Fred Cate told The Privacy Advisor, “Alan's passing is especially hard to come to grips with because he was such a larger-than-life figure who not only helped to create and define the modern field of privacy law but welcomed, included and mentored so many of us who followed in his giant footsteps. I wouldn't be in privacy law if it weren't for Alan, and I suspect that is true--directly or indirectly--for many IAPP members.”

George Washington University Prof. Lance Hoffman said Westin “saw the tensions that today exist between privacy and freedom and individualization and all sorts of things…control, surveillance, he saw that all coming together well before almost anyone else did.”

Westin is considered by many to have been the first intellectual to espouse a new definition of privacy. In his seminal work, Privacy and Freedom, Westin defined privacy as “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated.”                          

One key that Westin took from his early studies was that individuals must have the right to keep certain data private and the freedom to decide “who shall know other facts, at what time and under what conditions.”

“No one taught me more about what privacy is and why we should care about it than Alan Westin,” says author and George Washington University Law Prof. Jeffrey Rosen.

Born in New York City in 1929, Westin received a B.A. from the University of Florida in 1948, a Master of Laws from Harvard Law School in 1951 and his doctorate of philosophy from Harvard University in 1964. Westin also taught at Harvard, Yale and Cornell and was a member of the National Board of Directors of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as the National Civil Rights Committee of the Anti-Defamation League. Westin was awarded the IAPP Privacy Leadership Award in 2005 and Patient Privacy Rights' inaugural Louis D. Brandeis Privacy Award in 2012.

Written in 1967, Westin’s Privacy and Freedom addressed what he felt was a gap in social science. “Few values,” wrote Westin, “so fundamental to society as privacy have been left so undefined in social theory or have been the subject of such vague and confused writing by social scientists.”

Daniel Solove, a law professor at George Washington School of Law, has written about the prescience of Privacy and Freedom. “No work about privacy had done such a thorough job as Westin’s in elucidating the meaning and importance of privacy,” Solove wrote, adding, “Westin’s insights have inspired and informed countless works on privacy, including my own.”

Westin also made a sizable impact on privacy law and thinking with Data Banks in a Free Society. Co-written with Michael Baker in 1972, Data Banks in a Free Society addressed the growing practice of computerizing personal records in government, commercial and nonprofit organizations. Noting that increased computerization was not necessarily leading to surveillance fears held by many at the time, and that these new methods of record keeping improved work efficiency, the work presaged an ethos very similar to the Fair Information Practice Principles.

By 1974, the U.S. had initiated federal privacy legislation. During that time, Westin consulted Sen. Sam Ervin, Jr., in drafting the Federal Privacy Act of 1974. Privacy was also taking root in several democratic nations across the world, and Westin’s fingerprints could be found upon these movements.

“Alan Westin early on understood the value of bringing together a community of people to work on privacy issues, whether it was from business, government or advocacy groups, and some of that early work he did bringing groups together really inspired the formation of the International Association of Privacy Professionals,” said Hogan Lovells’ Partner Harriet Pearson, CIPP/US.

Not only did Westin consult government institutions around the world, he also consulted on privacy and helped write privacy codes for more than 100 U.S. and multi-national companies.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection in 2001--a public service with which Westin was familiar throughout his career--Westin pointed toward his “experience as the academic advisor to 45 national privacy surveys between 1979 and 2001” and his “analysis of more than 120 privacy surveys held in the Privacy & American Business (P&AB) survey library.”

In his testimony, Westin divided consumers into three categories based on their privacy preferences. The “privacy fundamentalists,” weighing in at 25 percent, were consumers who preferred opt-in consent and strong privacy legislation. The “privacy unconcerned”--a diminishing section of consumers, according to Westin--had very little in the way of privacy preferences.

“The most important groups for congresspersons to understand,” he wrote, were the “privacy pragmatists.”

The largest of the three groups, privacy pragmatists “ask what’s the benefit to them” and whether “they trust the company or industry to apply” privacy safeguards. “How to create conditions of trust for the privacy pragmatists is the challenge for businesses and lawmakers alike,” Westin testified.

In his summary, Westin continued, “The work of this decade, among survey researchers and congresspersons alike, is to discover what will persuade 125 million American privacy pragmatists that we have the right blend of business initiatives and legal oversight for good consumer information relationships with business.”

In a 2003 CIO article, Sarah D. Scarlet wrote, “The way Alan Westin sees it, privacy is not so much a cause or a burden for corporate America as it is a balance--one that he has spent the past four decades helping businesses negotiate.”

The nonprofit think tank referred to by Westin, P&AB, was co-founded with Bob Belair and provided expert analysis and a “balanced voice” on business and privacy issues. The group published a bi-monthly newsletter and comprehensive website; held annual conferences in Washington, DC, and led a Corporate Privacy Leadership Program and Global Business Privacy Policies Project.

To some, Westin was considered a “privacy research guru,” someone who advanced the concept of what we now know as the privacy profession. And for more than 50 years, Westin provided the public and private sectors with expert testimony and education on privacy issues found in finance, marketing, healthcare, telecommunications, employment, law enforcement, the Internet and social services, among others.

Throughout his work—whether he was expounding on privacy’s connection to freedom or analyzing ways to protect the consumer while allowing business to innovate and thrive—Westin saw the importance of balanced solutions.

As Westin once told CIO, “I’m a balance person. I identify dangers to privacy, but my solutions are much more about recognizing the competing values that need to be brought into some kind of harmony,” adding, “I’m a Libra, which is the scales. On one hand this; on the other hand, that. If you’re a Libra, balance is what the stars have given you…”