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Privacy and Freedom

Alan Westin

In defining privacy as “the claim of individuals…to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated,” Alan Westin’s 1967 classic *Privacy and Freedom* laid the philosophical groundwork for the current debates about technology and personal freedom, and is considered a foundational text in the field of privacy law.


The Bottom Line

Guarding our privacy in the face of “big data” may seem like a modern problem, but it’s one that scholars have been debating for decades. Alan Westin was a seminal voice in the privacy debate calling out the need for individual protections — and he was among the first to predict how emerging technology could fundamentally alter and invade our private worlds.

I. Introduction

Written in 1967, Privacy and Freedom was a book ahead of its time — and so was Columbia professor Alan Westin’s skepticism about big data. At the time, the computer age was just dawning and personal computers had yet to catch on. Even so, Westin already foresaw a world where privacy was at risk and where the implications of that threat were unnerving.

Westin’s work was fundamental to developing the Federal Trade Commission’s Fair Information Practice Principles (FIPP) in the 1970s. When it comes to collecting personal data, the FIPP established early recommendations about notification, consent and more.

While the technical aspects of Westin’s book may be outdated, the fundamental arguments are as timely as ever. From college classrooms to government halls, his insights are still used in debates about privacy and to justify why it’s crucial that we protect it. As more people today sacrifice privacy for convenience, Westin’s serves as a reminder of why that tradeoff warrants closer examination.

Law professor and international privacy expert Daniel J. Solove, who wrote the forward for the most recent edition of Privacy and Freedom, calls it one of “the most influential privacy works ever written.”

II. Privacy Is a Fundamental Value

III. Our Need for Privacy Is Age Old

IV. Democratic Societies Must Strike Their Own Balance

V. The Threat Posed by New Technology

VI. The Privacy Versus Security Tradeoff

VII. We Are More Than Our Data

The Takeaway


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