Robert Ellis Smith, Privacy Journalist, Dies 77

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Robert Ellis Smith passed away unexpectedly on Wednesday, July 25th, 2018. The cause of death, according to his son, Marc Smith, was a heart attack. He was 77 when he died at this home in Providence, R.I.

Born on September 6th, 1940 in Providence, Robert Ellis Smith was a civil rights activist and supporter in the South in the 1960s. Later in his life, he started publishing articles based on privacy and security. In 1965, he founded The Southern Courier in Montgomery, Alabama, a weekly newspaper operated by alumni of Harvard Crimson student newspaper.

The Southern Courier covered civil rights movement events and helped publishing news for influential leaders of civil rights movements like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. During that time, these civil rights movements’ events and protests were not covered by mainstream media.

After the publication ceased its operations in 1968, Smith joined Detroit Free Press, Trenton Times, and Newsday as a news reporter and editor. Besides, he also worked at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as an assistant director.

While he was studying law at Georgetown University, he started publishing weekly newsletter “Privacy Journal” in 1974. The newsletter was formed in light of the potential privacy issue and social problems due to the technological advancements in the upcoming era. The newsletter was successful, with around 6,000 subscribers topped in the 1980s.

Smith also wrote multiple books in his life, notable of them being “Workrights”, “Our Vanishing Privacy”, “Ben Franklin’s Website: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet”, and finalist for the National Nonfiction Book of the Year Award “Privacy: How to Protect What’s Left of It”.

In his book, “Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet”, Smith describes privacy “the desire of each of us to control the time and manner of disclosures of personal information about ourselves.” Other than that, he discusses the intrusive nature of Puritan leaders of the Colonial era, where they used to observe church attendance and conduct of people.

Furthermore, Smith observed and wrote about the wiretapping issue and the information collected online from the people online as a part of government surveillance. In his book “War Stories”, Smith reveals how a flight attendant was confusingly detained as her name was similar to a criminal woman which resulted in her medical records publicized.

Smith continued publishing Privacy Journal after he moved back to Providence in around 1990s. He was a writer, speaker and taught various subjects at Harvard, University of Maryland, Brown University and Roger Williams University Law School.  He worked on the privacy issues and published a list of organizations that might help people combat against privacy intrusions and espionage.

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