WASHINGTON — Alan Westin, one of the first and most widely respected scholars to explore the dilemmas of privacy in the information age, died Monday at a hospice in Saddle River, N.J. He was 83.
He had cancer, said his son, Jeremy.
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, was more than the right to be left alone. It was the ability to control how much information we reveal, and how and when to share it.
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.
The book shocked some readers with its depiction of the latest developments in surveillance. These included microphones hidden in water coolers, sophisticated 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,’’ Walter Goodman wrote in a review.
Writing in The New Republic, Ronald 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 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 and medical records.
He was cited as one of the first scholars 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 that Dr. Westin took pride in being a Libra — the sign of the Zodiac represented by a scale.
‘‘If you’re a Libra,’’ Dr. 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, a bachelor of law degree from Harvard Law School, and a doctorate in political science from Harvard University. He said he became interested in privacy during the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era.
Dr. Westin was for several 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.
Dr. Westin lived in Teaneck,.
Lance Hoffman, the director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University, said 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.