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The Privacy Advisor | David Flaherty’s influence, death marks ‘chapter in modern privacy law’ Related reading: Martin Abrams: A look back at a career in information privacy and consumer policy



The privacy community is mourning the death of David Flaherty, a leader described as ahead of his time, who paved the way for what the privacy profession has become today.

“David Flaherty launched the comparative study of privacy law, served admirably as a provincial commissioner in Canada, mentored students and advocates, and supported colleagues and friends,” Center for AI and Digital Policy President Marc Rotenberg said. “His influence and our loss mark a chapter in modern privacy law.”

Flaherty, who died Oct. 11, served as an assistant to privacy scholar Alan F. Westin at Columbia University in 1964 and became a renowned scholar in his own right, authoring a series of books and teaching for more than 30 years at Princeton University, the University of Virginia and the University of Western Ontario in Canada. He was appointed by the British Columbia Legislature as the province's first information and privacy commissioner — an office he established and built — serving from 1993-1999. Flaherty's obituary says he subsequently created a consultantcy business "wisely helping governments, public institutions and businesses across Canada navigate their legal obligations while doing the right thing." 

"David broke new ground in privacy law and policy, publishing influential papers and texts on topics such as privacy in modern surveillance societies. He was known internationally for his academic and policy work on privacy and is remembered as a major contributor to the establishment of Canadian legal history scholarship," his obituary reads.

David Flaherty, right, with current British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy, far left, and former commissioners David Loukadelis and Elizabeth Denham.

British Columbia Information and Privacy Commissioner Michael McEvoy called Flaherty’s contributions in the areas of privacy and access to information “immense,” adding they “have made a lasting impact on society not just in British Columbia but in Canada and internationally.”

“He paved the way for his successors by establishing the office and issuing hundreds of decisions helping shape BC’s law,” McEvoy said. “To the last he was a staunch supporter of the OIPC, serving on the Office’s External Advisory Board supporting research, public education and policy work. He was also deeply committed to his community volunteering time to various boards and donating generously to philanthropic causes.”

While the Electronic Privacy Information Center — where Flaherty served as an advisory board member — states he wrote 320 orders under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act during his time as B.C. information and privacy commissioner, Elizabeth Denham said it’s Flaherty’s volunteer service and mentorship to so many in the privacy community that is his true legacy.

“He never stopped educating, inspiring, mentoring and teaching, and I think that’s his legacy. It’s not just about how many orders he wrote as commissioner, how much jurisprudence he created as commissioner, it’s really about having a cause — and privacy and information rights were his cause — and then training others who came along behind him,” she said.

Denham, who followed in Flaherty’s footsteps as B.C. information and privacy commissioner, serving in the role from 2010-2016, said he “was still pushing me and inspiring me” through his final days.

“David had a big impact on a lot of people in the privacy field,” said Rotenberg, adding Flaherty wrote the recommendation letter that led to his study of international privacy law at Georgetown University. “He had a nice, somewhat quiet way of helping people out and providing support and recommendations and advancing careers. I am personally very grateful.”

In 2013, EPIC presented Flaherty with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in support of so many in the privacy world.

Denham and Rotenberg said Flaherty’s books had an enormous influence in the field. In “Protecting Privacy in Surveillance Societies: The Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, France, Canada, & the United States,” published in 1989, Denham said Flaherty foreshadowed implications of new technologies “that have really come to pass.”

“It’s a must-read. And that was 30 years ago,” she said. “He was so ahead of his time.”

Rotenberg said Flaherty highlighted how different countries were responding to similar challenges and the effectiveness of data protection agencies, primarily that they did not need large budgets or staffs to be effective.  

“They could use the ‘bully pulpit,’ David’s term, to advance the cause of privacy,” he said. “That insight influenced me when we launched the Electronic Privacy Information Center a few years later, when the U.S. had no privacy agency. We were never particularly concerned about big budgets or big organizations. We knew from David’s guidance that organizations could be effective if they cared passionately about their mission.”

In a tribute to Flaherty, Denham said, “We owe him a debt of gratitude for evolving a new field of work — one that continues to grow and evolve, thanks in part to his influence.”

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