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Privacy Perspectives | Alan Westin’s Legacy of Privacy and Freedom Related reading: Notes from the IAPP Europe, 23 Feb. 2024



The long and well-deserved obituary of Alan Westin in The New York Times, is one of many tributes now appearing to this pioneer of privacy. I have had great admiration for Alan since he helped this junior law professor enter the privacy field in the mid-1990s. In this short recognition of Alan, I first offer some of the things for which he is best known and then add a few items from my own experience with him:

  1. Privacy and Freedom. The title of this 1967 book itself helped define the privacy field – how an essential aspect of freedom involves control over one’s personal information. Alan defined the four states of privacy as solitude, intimacy, anonymity and reserve. One focus of the book was the threat to freedom that can arise from pervasive use of polygraphs (lie detectors); an important but little-known law that addressed that problem is the Employee Polygraph Protection Act of 1988. In privacy, some problems actually get (more-or-less) solved!
  2. Databanks in a Free Society. This 1972 book highlighted how the mainframe computers of the era created a cascade of issues about privacy.  Alan always recognized both the many good uses of data as well as the need for privacy limits on those uses. His attention to “a free society” helped define the basic privacy protections and led to the U.S. Privacy Act of 1974.
  3. Privacy and American Business. With Bob Belair, Alan ran the annual conference and publications for Privacy & American Business. In the 1990’s, as I entered the field, this was THE annual privacy conference related to business practices, with perhaps 200 people in the room. Alan’s intellectual rigor came through in his summary of the year’s privacy events, and major enterprises depended on these insights as they built their data systems.
  4. Survey research on privacy. Although Alan was comfortable with high theory about privacy and freedom, he also insisted on solid factual grounding for his writings. From about 1990 to 2003, Alan conducted the most prominent surveys of consumer attitudes about privacy. Although privacy advocates sometimes criticized these studies as being pro-business, a regular headline supported privacy protections—a heavy majority of consumers reported that they had “lost all control over how personal information about them is circulated and used by companies.” Alan also emphasized the diversity of individual concern about privacy, such as a 1990 study that found that 25% of the public are Privacy Fundamentalists, with 57% as Privacy Pragmatists and 18% as Privacy Unconcerned. The existence of diverse preferences is a powerful rationale for having consumer choice about privacy settings—some consumers are deeply concerned about privacy while others are not.

Now, I add a few of my own experiences in connection with Alan:

  1. The constitutional law scholar. As a law student in the early 1980’s, I did a project on the big Supreme Court case when President Truman seized the steel mills during the Korean War. I relied on a book called The Anatomy of a Constitutional Law Case, by a professor I had never heard of named Alan Westin. The book informed my own views about the importance of checks and balances.
  2. A balance person. In a 2003 interview with CIO Magazine, Alan was asked whether he considered himself an advocate for privacy. He answered:? "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.” I sympathize deeply with this effort to identify both the uses and the risks of personal information, and have worked both to create privacy protections (coordinating the HIPAA medical privacy rule) and to highlight privacy rules that seemed overly strict (critiques of some aspects of E.U. data protection law).
  3. Responding to the E.U. Directive. Alan’s keen intelligence meant that he often spotted the big privacy issues and worked on them before most others had realized their importance. Before the E.U. Directive went into effect in 1998, I had the good fortune to work with Alan on “model contracts” to send personal information lawfully from the E.U. to countries that lacked “adequate” protection. This work helped define the issues that later turned into the US-EU Safe Harbor agreement.
  4. A legacy of privacy and freedom. The last time I saw Alan was at his home in New Jersey in 2012. He was already quite ill, but he remained determined to continue work on his grand history of privacy. Alan pointed out that the free societies that created democracy had also protected privacy, from ancient Athens (paired against totalitarian Sparta) to the rise of the Parliament in Britain (paired against the authoritarian French kings). The IAPP is now helping to organize work to continue this research and Alan’s irreplaceable legacy.

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