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Just because lawyer and journalist Robert Ellis Smith has spent more than 25 years writing about privacy law, it doesn’t mean he’s some sort of hermit. “Most people think I’m an expert in computer security or I’m a flake. A lot of people say, ‘The guy works in privacy, maybe we shouldn’t ring his doorbell,’ ” Smith said. Known nationally as an expert on privacy issues, the Providence, R.I.-based Smith is often asked to speak before legislative bodies, governmental agencies and businesses interested in privacy law. Last month, he spoke in Seattle at the annual meeting of all the states’ chief justices on the topic of privacy and public access. The timing was right since courts all over the country are wrestling with what documents should be made available on the Internet, he said. Smith told the justices that courts should strive for some middle ground “within a mandatory, open-records environment.” Although the law pretty much dictates what material can be made public, Smith said there are a number of documents that should not be put on the Internet, such as depositions and records involving children in family court matters. He describes depositions as “raw, unevaluated and not subject to cross-examination.” Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams, who listened to Smith’s comments at the chief’s conference, said he was impressed with his balanced viewpoint. “I find it fascinating that he’s not rabid in his concern for privacy. He recognizes that the public has a right to know,” Williams said. “We deal with so many people who are not exactly rational about their point of view. I respect that he’s not like that.” It’s only been over the last 18 months that Smith has seen an emergence of confusion over what is appropriate material to release via the Internet as more states have their own court Web sites. “Courts are beleaguered by requests for information. They want to make it as automated as possible,” he said. In October, Smith, 60, is slated to speak at the Labor Arbitration Conference at the University of Rhode Island on “Privacy in the Workplace: Electronic & Genetic Monitoring.” GETTING THE WORD OUT When not accepting speaking engagements, Smith publishes Privacy Journal, a monthly newsletter on “privacy in a computer age,” a job he has had since 1974. He works from his home in Providence, writing about 90 percent of the newsletter’s content. He also operates a small private law practice on Block Island, R.I., in which he handles general practice matters such as wills and real estate. The advent of the World Wide Web and e-mail has kept Smith busy with more than enough topics to discuss in his newsletter. “I’m totally overwhelmed. I freely admit that I’m losing the ability to stay on top of this issue,” he said. “Technology is hard to keep track of.” Smith prides himself in offering his 20,000 readers enterprise stories, topics he says “others don’t have,” such as what various states require to obtain a driver’s license or the “don’t ask, don’t tell” piece on a matrix of what an employer may ask about an employee’s personal information. His base of operations is the third floor of his home with a small staff of Brown University interns, a Washington, D.C., correspondent and an assistant to handle circulation and book sales. A hallway wall outside his office is covered with references to privacy, whether a framed brochure of a panel on which he served, an article he wrote or a photo of his appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on the eve of 1984 to discuss whether George Orwell was right about the state of the world in his book “1984.” Immersing himself in the privacy arena, Smith often encounters trends in the field. One such trend is the creation of chief privacy officer positions at businesses, particularly Fortune 500 companies, and the need for companies to hire corporate counsel devoted solely to privacy, according to Smith. Of the nearly 300 businesses that have chief privacy officers, lawyers fill only a small number, he said. Much of the work that lawyers who concentrate in the privacy area handle these days involve theft of identity cases, getting credit bureau agencies to correct their errors, cases involving electronic surveillance or issues that include whether the media went too far in its coverage. COMBINING INTERESTS Although it is tough to have a full-time legal practice in privacy, Smith said, he merged his journalism background with an area of law that really interested him. “I came of age as a lawyer during a period when people discovered they can combine disciplines of law with other fields,” he said, noting for example that there are doctors who are also lawyers. “It can be a more rewarding law practice.” Since a lot of areas of law are regarded as “unclear and murky,” Smith said lawyers should look to that kind of practice to try and make a niche for themselves. His career began with jobs as a reporter and editor for the Detroit Free Press, Trenton Times, The Southern Courier and Newsday in the 1960s. His interest in privacy, he said, stems from his days during the Vietnam War when he would write stories about people whose lives were touched by the war. “I invaded a lot of people’s privacy to get a story. I went into a lot of homes of survivors and next of kin and people who had been killed in [the Vietnam] war,” he said. “That’s when it first really hit me the intrusions that are necessary to gather the news.” From there Smith worked as the assistant director of the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. It was at that time he attended at night Georgetown University Law Center in the mid-’70s. He called his decision to become a lawyer “kind of self-defense.” “I was surrounded by family and friends who were lawyers,” he said. “It also became clear to me to advance in federal government and to have any role in public policy, you need a law degree.” (During his last years of law school Smith launched Privacy Journal.) Last year, Smith released a book titled, “Ben Franklin’s Web Site: Privacy and Curiosity from Plymouth Rock to the Internet.” He calls it an “account of privacy in American history.” The subject matter, a chronicling of privacy issues that begin with Colonial concepts, has come as a surprise to many readers, he said, noting that the inventions of the camera and telephone were the first times that privacy became the public’s concern. The chief justice said he has a copy of Smith’s book in his chambers. “Having him as a resource so close by is a treasure for Rhode Island,” Williams said. Asked to define “privacy,” Smith rattles it off without hesitation. That comes from his many years of writing about that issue, but also from the fact that twice he was asked to define “privacy” for the World Book Encyclopedia. He said there are two definitions of privacy. The “informational” definition is the “attempt by individuals to control the use and dissemination of sensitive information about themselves.” The “physical” definition is a “quest for some physical space free of interruption, embarrassment or accountability.” The way the rest of the population defines privacy could be another story, however. Twenty-seven years in the privacy arena has taught Smith that Americans are both “curious and privacy-minded,” two concepts that compete within each person with “curiosity winning most of the time.” “We are hoarders of information rather than worshippers of privacy,” he said.

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