By Jason Islas
December 3, 2013 -- Willis Ware, a former RAND Corporation engineer, a pioneer of computer technology and an early advocate for personal privacy in the digital age, died last month at his Santa Monica home. He was 93.
Ware, an electrical engineer who worked on one of the earliest computers with John von Neumann in 1946 at Princeton, lived to see much of his early predictions about how personal computers would come to pervade daily life and the erosion of personal privacy that would ensue.
“The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis,” Ware wrote in a 1966 paper for RAND called “Future Computer Technology and Its Impact.”
He wrote, “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.”
A half-century before headlines about the National Security Agency accessing civilian emails alerted many to how technology could affect personal privacy, Ware strived at the national level to make certain that privacy and technology could coexist.
Ware believed "we would find a path to retain adequate privacy while these changes were going on," said Bob Anderson, who worked with Ware during his 55 years at RAND.
Ware even had personalized license plates on his car advertising his commitment to privacy, Anderson recalled, adding he would always look for the car in the RAND parking lot that said “MR PRIVACY.”
Because of his work on the Privacy Protection Commission -- among other bodies -- Ware is widely credited as the driving force behind the 1974 Federal Privacy Act.
In a 1973 paper for RAND called “Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens,” Ware advocated for laws that would protect people from secret data record-keeping systems. He said that “people should know what information about them is being recorded and have a way to correct it,” RAND officials said.
“Willis helped usher RAND into the computer era at a time when computers existed mostly in the realm of science fiction,” said RAND President and CEO Michael D. Rich. “He was ahead of his time in thinking about the profound effects that computers could have on information privacy.”
While Ware’s reputation as a brilliant engineer and keen observer of society is well-earned, said RAND’s Director of Community Relations Iao Katagiri, “he was also a very thoughtful, courteous and kind human being who sent a friendly wave and greeting your way whenever he saw you in the hallway.
“Even though I am technologically challenged and only understood about 2 percent of what Willis said, I enjoyed being around him for most of my years at RAND,” she said. “He came into the office well into his 80's, so he'll be missed by our staff of all ages.”
Ware, who was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on August 31, 1920, studied at University of Pennsylvania and MIT.
During World War II, he worked on “designing classified radar detection tools for the military and gaining experience with digital technology,” RAND officials said.
Shortly after the war, he was part of the team that designed and built the IAS computer, one of the world’s first.
He eventually moved out west and settled in Santa Monica, the headquarters of the RAND Corporation, taking a job as an engineer for the think tank.
Ware is survived by two daughters, Alison Ware and Deborah Pinson; a son, David and two grandchildren.
A memorial service is expected to be held early in 2014.