Computer privacy pioneerWillis Ware

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An engineer, Ware worked with John von Neumann to build the Institute for Advanced Study’s computer at Princeton. In 1952, armed with his just-issued Princeton Ph.D., he moved to the California think tank RAND Corp., where he helped build a similar computer, the Johnniac (named for von Neumann), which used 5,000 vacuum tubes, weighed 5,000 pounds, and sucked 40 kilowatts of power. But RAND (Research ANd Development) was a think tank, and Ware indeed thought about the implications of what he said was “a machine that could run hundreds of hours without an error,” which was Johnniac’s design goal. In 1966, he predicted in a whitepaper that in the future, “The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis. Every man will communicate through a computer whatever he does. It will change and reshape his life, modify his career and force him to accept a life of continuous change.” Pretty much, that’s the Internet in a nutshell.

But once he got that down, he continued to think about it, and he became a bit worried. “The central issue is that for various reasons there is more and more information about people floating around in data banks,” he said in 1972. “The computer is beginning to make it possible to find out more about you in fewer places. I suspect that what we’ll all give up is control over how essentially private information about ourselves is used. We’ll gradually get used to that.” He was, in essence, one of the first to really think about — and warn the public about — the privacy implications of computers. He chaired the cabinet-level “HEW Committee”; their final report became the basis for the 1974 Federal Privacy Act. The HEW (Health, Education and Welfare) Code of Fair Information Practices set up the basics:

  • There must be no personal record-keeping system whose very existence is secret.
  • There must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him or her is in a record and how it is used.
  • There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him or her that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his or her consent.
  • There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him or her.
  • All organizations creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuse of the data.Source: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems, Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973. Ware was the document’s principal author.)

“Willis helped usher RAND into the computer era at a time when computers existed mostly in the realm of science fiction,” said RAND CEO Michael Rich. “He was ahead of his time in thinking about the profound effects that computers could have on information privacy. The principles he set forth in 1973 remain relevant to today’s debate about privacy and security.” The government — and industry — hasn’t lived up well to those principles, but Ware was not bitter. “Not at all,” says his daughter, Alison Ware. “I never heard him be despondent about how things worked out. He was problem-oriented — he looked at a problem and took on the challenge of examining it.” Ware stayed with RAND for more than 50 years, and was still on the Advisory Board of EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, when he died — at 94 on November 22.

(Note: for a copy of Ware’s 1966 whitepaper [PDF, 1.1 MB], you can download it from Rand.)

From This is True for 1 December 2013