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The Privacy Advisor | Colleagues pay tribute to Ian Kerr, 1965 – 2019 Related reading: Catching up on IAPP GPS 2024 keynote speeches




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Privacy professionals and regulators are paying tribute to Ian Kerr, who has died at age 54. Kerr was the Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology for the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. He won numerous awards throughout his career — including the Bank of Nova Scotia Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Graduate Studies’ Award of Teaching Excellence — helped launch the first "We Robot" conference in 2012 and served as a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University, New York University, Tilburg University in the Netherlands and others.

Those who knew and worked with Kerr remember not only the vast contributions he made to privacy, but also the man himself.

"Ian Kerr was many things to the privacy field: a creative, sometimes provocative, and wide-ranging intellectual; a masterful and engaging communicator; a thoughtful and caring teacher. His professional qualifications and accomplishments could fill volumes," IAPP President President and CEO J. Trevor Hughes said in a statement. "But Ian was so much more. His smile was quick and authentic. He delighted in friendship and collegiality. And his embrace of life — family, music, art, travel — was joyful and infectious. We have lost a great member of the privacy community. I miss him already."

Ian Kerr

Privacy Commissioner of Canada Daniel Therrien called Kerr an "important leader in the privacy world" and praised him for both "his sharp legal mind" and his ability to identify key developments and challenges.

"My office worked closely with Ian in his role as Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology and sought out his expertise in areas such as anonymity, privacy and identity in a networked society," Therrien said in a statement. "On a personal level, Ian was unfailingly warm and engaging and it was always a privilege to spend time with him. All of us here at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada extend deepest condolences to his family and colleagues."

Former Privacy Commissioner of Canada Jennifer Stoddart said Kerr was years ahead of the debate around artificial intelligence. Stoddart said Kerr was already thinking about the ethical challenges around decisions made by AI and machines, a hot topic in 2019, back when she first met him in 2004.

"Ian was years ahead of the pack in his interest in artificial intelligence and the ethical dilemmas that moving toward decisions made by artificial intelligence would pose for us," Stoddart said. "He always had a very unique place in the Canadian and academic world because he had this vision of what was coming, this concern for what was coming, when so many of us were concentrating on the daily." 

Stoddart also cited the impact Kerr had on the students and privacy scholars he interacted with throughout his career, a sentiment echoed by U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham.

Denham said Kerr's "greatest legacy" to both privacy and law will be as a teacher and mentor, as his students "reflect his curiosity, scrutiny, analysis and ethics in their careers." Denham added she will miss their collaborations "over the past 15 years and his prescient insight into the impacts of technology on the people it was meant to serve," which included his work on AI.

"Ian and his colleagues at the University of Ottawa put Canada on the map as a leading jurisdiction in privacy law. He built strong bridges between academia, civil society and regulators through his scholarship, partnerships and generous friendship," Denham said in a statement. "Ian Kerr paved the way for privacy regulators around the world to grapple with the issues surrounding artificial intelligence and robotics, leading a session at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Morocco in 2016."

IAPP Managing Director for Canada Kris Klein, CIPP/C, CIPM, FIP, called Kerr an "absolute giant" in the privacy world, but also "one of the most fun, down-to-earth people I can think of." Klein shared his favorite anecdote of his time together with Kerr.

"The memory I choose to remember most today is when he came for a visit, with his daughter Ruby, a couple of weeks after we brought home our new puppy, Molly. Ian was curiously insistent they had to play with Molly 'right away,' because he knew the time with a cute little puppy is so fleeting," Klein said in a statement. "I admired Ian’s approach to seizing moments like these, I am of course thankful for his body of work, and I remain inspired by his kindness and generosity."

University of Ottawa Faculty of Law Professor Michael Geist penned a tribute to his colleague and friend where he, as so many have, praised Kerr's illustrious career and the man he was over the course of his life.

"It is tempting — indeed deserving — to focus on a truly breathtaking record of academic achievement. Ian was widely recognized as a global leader and brought enormous pride to all of his colleagues. He was one of us and showed how Canadians can thrive on the world stage," Geist wrote in his post. "Yet Ian’s towering career does not tell the most important part of the story nor explain why his loss is so difficult. It was Ian the person, the mentor, the collaborator, the friend, that sparkles the most from this brightest of stars. He was a creative genius, equally comfortable baking challahs, reciting poetic rock lyrics, or drumming in a band as he was on the biggest academic stage."

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