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Robert Ellis Smith, a pioneering writer and thinker in the privacy field, died July 25. He was 77. Perhaps best known in privacy for publishing "Privacy Journal" continuously since 1974, he was also the author of a number of privacy-related books, including "Ben Franklin's Web Site," and had a long history as an activist and champion of human rights. 

Privacy Journal, published for the first time just seven years after Alan Westin's seminal "Privacy & Freedom," was intended for a wide audience, not just the professional crowd. A mix of legal updates, technological examinations, and thought pieces, the monthly publication was just as likely to offer tips about clearing your browser's cookies as to provide analysis of a new settlement announced by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. The Journal also maintained a directory of privacy professionals — touting more than 600 at last count — and offered a book of consolidated U.S. privacy laws not for the privacy professional, but for the lay consumer. 

Smith was at his core an activist who hoped to educate the citizenry so that they would exercise their privacy rights and keep encroaching technological threats at bay. 

In fact, as early as 1980, Smith penned "Privacy: How To Protect What's Left of It," which was a finalist for the National Book Award. 

This approach to privacy is in line with his early life's work in journalism and civil rights. After graduating from Harvard and serving in the military, Smith founded The Southern Courier, a weekly newspaper based in Montgomery, Alabama, that published between 1965 and 1968 and drew attention to many in the civil rights movement when other mainstream publications were hesitant to do so. He worked with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks before moving on to become assistant director of civil rights at the former U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

According to his obituary in the Washington Post, his next stop as a law student at Georgetown awakened him to the coming privacy issues that the computer age would bring. Soon after getting his degree, he launched Privacy Journal "from a back-alley carriage house in Washington." At one point, the journal boasted 6,000 subscribers, and the Journal's web site to this day touts 29 subscribers who never let their subscriptions lapse from day one and a final total of 4,042 pages published, all told. 

Smith was, quite simply, extremely dedicated to privacy, proud to have been asked to write the definition of privacy — no easy task — twice for the World Book Encyclopedia, and singularly focused to his last days on publishing the Journal, which was his life's work for 44 years. He is a foundational voice in the field and it is likely his contributions will be recognized for years to come. 

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  • comment Joanne McNabb • Aug 13, 2018
    Robert’s contributions to the privacy field were many and vital, including his compilation of state privacy laws, which was for a long time the only such resource available. His was a race well run. RIP, friend.