Alan F. Westin, scholar of privacy in the information ages, dies at 83

February 19, 2013

Alan F. Westin, one of the first and most widely respected scholars to explore the dilemmas of privacy in the information age, died Feb. 18 at a hospice in Saddle River, N.J. He was 83.

He had cancer, said his son, Jeremy Westin.

A professor of public law and government, Dr. Westin taught at Columbia University for nearly four decades. Through his prolific academic writing and frequent media appearances, he became nationally known as one of the most knowledgeable, prescient and reasonable voices on privacy questions in modern society.

Dr. Westin “was the most important privacy scholar since Louis Brandeis,” said Jeffrey Rosen, a George Washington University law professor, referring to the late Supreme Court justice who memorably articulated “the right to be left alone.”

Dr. Westin recast Brandeis’s definition for the era of computers, credit cards and direct mail. Privacy, Dr. Westin essentially argued, is more than the right to be left alone. It is the ability to control how much information about ourselves we reveal to others, and how and when to share it.


Alan F. Westin at his desk in an undated photo. (Courtesy Columbia University Archives)

He first rose to prominence in 1967 with the publication of “Privacy and Freedom,” a book that 46 years later is still considered a landmark work in the field.

Sponsored by the New York City Bar Association and the Carnegie Corporation, the book shocked some readers with its depiction of the latest developments in surveillance. These included microphones hidden in water coolers, sophisticated new photographic techniques and — perhaps most relevant for today — computerized data collection.

“The facts gain force from his dispassionate recital, and he goes beyond them to suggest how rampant technology, whose benefits we cannot be expected to abjure, may be brought under control,” New York Times journalist Walter Goodman wrote in a review.

Writing in the New Republic magazine, reviewer Ronald L. Goldfarb called the book a “hallmark contribution to the public enlightenment.”

Dr. Westin wrote or edited more than two dozen books, including “Databanks in a Free Society: Computers, Record-Keeping and Privacy” (1972), which he coauthored with Michael A. Baker. His writings were cited by the Supreme Court and his counsel sought by congressional committees and federal regulatory agencies, particularly during the debates in the 1970s over credit reporting, medical records and other privacy concerns.

Dr. Westin was cited as one of the first scholars to recognize the threats of modern technology and as one of the first to present a measured philosophy in a debate often charged with emotion and ideology.

He was described at times as a civil libertarian, but he acknowledged the tensions between privacy and freedom, disclosure and surveillance. Bob Belair, a Washington privacy lawyer and longtime collaborator of Dr. Westin’s, noted in an interview that Dr. Westin took pride in being a Libra — the sign of the Zodiac represented by a scale.

“If you’re a Libra,” Mr. Westin once told an interviewer, “balance is what the stars have given you — or cursed you to.”

Alan Furman Westin was born Oct. 11, 1929, in New York City, where his parents ran a men’s clothing store.

He received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Florida in 1948, a bachelor of law degree from Harvard Law School in 1951 and a doctorate in political science from Harvard University in 1964. He said that he became interested in privacy during the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.

Dr. Westin was for a number of years the editor of Civil Liberties Review, a publication of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation. From 1993 to 2003, he and Belair published the newsletter Privacy and American Business and ran a related conference service for corporate executives.

Dr. Westin lived in Teaneck, N.J. His wife of 53 years, Bea Shapoff Westin, died in 2007, and his son David Westin died in 2003. Survivors include two children, Jeremy Westin of Los Angeles and Debra Westin of Teaneck; and three grandchildren.

Lance Hoffman, the director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University, said that one of Dr. Westin’s distinguishing qualities was his ability to bridge different fields, including the law, technology, philosophy and history. At the time of his death, he was at work on a magnum opus about privacy in Western civilization.

“Pericles, in his famous funeral oration, said Athens does not attempt to control people in their private lives,” he once told the Times.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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