Why Minnesotans should remember Alan Westin

  • Article by: MARSHALL H. TANICK
  • Updated: March 28, 2013 - 7:55 PM
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The death this month of privacy guru Alan Westin underscores the importance of the right for which he advocated for nearly 50 years (“He helped define modern right to privacy,” March 19).

A legal scholar and professor at Columbia University, Westin was instrumental in articulating and extending the right of privacy in many different contexts. He left his mark on issues ranging from wiretapping to reproductive rights to the pervasive intrusions in today’s digital age.

Westin’s passing is particularly noteworthy here in Minnesota, where privacy rights have taken center stage. The filing of some 10 different lawsuits over unauthorized access to driver’s license and motor vehicle records by an official with the Department of Natural Resources and employees of many law enforcement agencies has highlighted the fragility of privacy for Minnesotans.

On the other hand, a recent ruling from the Department of Administration bolstered privacy rights by allowing Minneapolis to maintain the confidentiality of vehicle location data derived from license plate tracking devices used by law enforcement authorities.

Both developments came just weeks after a legislative committee blocked a proposal to authorize “photo cop” surveillance of drivers, a practice that resulted in a $2.1 million class action lawsuit a few years ago.

The crosscurrents reflect the volatility of the right of privacy. Westin’s 1967 book “Privacy and Freedom” is still considered a landmark, but his work was presaged a century earlier in 1890 by Louis Brandeis, a future Supreme Court justice, and his law partner, Samuel Warren, who, in one of the most influential law review articles ever written, first famously articulated the legal right of privacy as the “right to be let alone.”

Westin’s work built upon the framework Brandeis and Warren erected. And now that he’s gone, others must sustain the cause of privacy in the face of technological challenges so widespread today — the Internet, e-mail and social media.

Westin was prescient in recognizing the gravity of intrusions on personal privacy rights associated with modern technology, as well as more conventional privacy invasions. He will be missed by many privacy advocates, but his impact on the law in Minnesota and elsewhere will be long-lasting.

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Marshall H. Tanick is a Twin Cities attorney.

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