Computer pioneer who foretold the threat to privacy from the development of computers

December 2, 2013 |

The Washington Post reports  (found here) on the death of Willis Ware, one of the great computer engineers.  He presience was extraordinary in predicting the ubiquity of personal computers, the formation of social networks but also the negative privacy impacts of these innovations.

It provides:

Computer pioneer Willis Ware saw the future, and it worried him.

In 1966, Dr. Ware, who worked as an engineer at Rand Corp. in California, foresaw not only the omnipresence of personal computers but also social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

“The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis,” he wrote in a paper presented at Rand 47 years ago. “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.”

Dr. Ware, who lived to see his predictions come true, died Nov. 22 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif.. He was 93 and had recently been in failing health, said his daughter Alison Ware.

In 1973, with personal data increasingly being added to company and government computer systems, Dr. Ware had another, darker prediction. “The central issue is that for various reasons there is more and more information about people floating around in data banks,” he said in a 1972 Los Angeles Times interview. “The computer is beginning to make it possible to find out more about you in fewer places.”

Based in Santa Monica, Rand is primarily known as a think tank. Dr. Ware, who was on staff at Rand for more than 50 years, did a lot more than just ponder the privacy issue. He wrote and spoke about the matter in numerous venues, including high-level government panels.

“Willis helped usher Rand into the computer era at a time when computers existed mostly in the realm of science fiction,” Rand chief executive Michael Rich said in a statement. “He was ahead of his time in thinking about the profound effects that computers could have on information privacy.”

Dr. Ware was chairman of a committee created in 1972 by the U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare to come up with policy suggestions. He was a principal author of the committee’s report, “Records, Computers and the Right of Citizens,” which included the following suggestions:

“There must be no personal data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret.”

“There must be a way for an individual to find out what information about him is in the record and how it is used.”

“Any organization creating, maintaining, using or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use.”

In later years, when hackers, corporate mining of personal information and the National Security Agency made headlines, Dr. Ware did not become bitter, his daughter said, or take on an I-told-you-so attitude.

“Not at all,” Alison Ware said. “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.”

Willis Howard Ware was born Aug. 31, 1920, in Atlantic City. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT and earned a doctorate in the field from Princeton University. During World War II, he worked at Hazeltine Corp. in upstate New York, designing classified radar detection tools, according to Rand.

In addition to daughter Alison Ware, survivors include another daughter, Deborah Pinson; a son, David Ware; three brothers; two granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

At Princeton, Dr. Ware was part of the group that built the landmark IAS computer. In 1952, he joined Rand to help build the Johnniac computer, which weighed 2.5 tons and had 5,000 vacuum tubes.

But he will probably be best remembered for his forward thinking about how computers would affect our lives.

“He was able to foresee things we couldn’t even begin to imagine back then,” said computer scientist Bob Anderson, who worked with Dr. Ware at Rand. “He was truly a pioneer in the field.”

Notwithstanding the clear warnings Ware raised in 1972 and 1973 regarding the dangers to privacy from the data collection abilities of new and improved computers the law lagged badly then and it has not improved with time.

Leave a Reply