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BY MICHAEL D. RICH
SUBMITTED BY THE NAE HOME SECRETARY
The field of computer science is relatively young, but it has seen its share of visionaries and trailblazers. Few, however, have pushed the frontiers of technology with as much persistence and ...
The field of computer science is relatively young, but it has seen its share of visionaries and trailblazers. Few, however, have pushed the frontiers of technology with as much persistence and longevity as WILLIS HOWARD WARE, who passed away on November 22, 2013, at the age of 93.
Born in Atlantic City on August 31, 1920, Willis showed an early passion for engineering and circuitry. Working with salvaged parts and loaf pans pilfered from his mother’s kitchen, he constructed primitive two and three-tube radios. After completing his undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively, and shortly after the United States entered World War II he took a job at Hazeltine Electronics.
There, his work on classified military systems exposed him to new signals equipment at a time when, as he remarked, “the phrase ‘digital technology’ was not yet in the lexicon.” At war’s end, his experience brought him to John von Neumann’s newly established computer development program at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).
Willis found two attractive benefits to working at Princeton: a tuition-free PhD and an opportunity “to learn all about this newfangled thing called a computer.” Since late 1945 a small US Air Force project housed at Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica had also been probing the frontiers of computing technology.
By the time the RAND Corporation was established as an independent organization in 1948, it needed something more powerful than a labor-intensive process involving mechanical calculators, handwritten worksheets, and analog computer simulation to meet its increasingly ambitious data needs. It dispatched a team to visit laboratories and universities across the country.
The results were not encouraging—until the team visited IAS at Princeton. There, Willis, von Neumann, and other pioneers were building what would become the model for the next decade and a half of electronic computing technology and the basis for the “Johnniac” (named in honor of von Neumann), the backbone of RAND’s modern computer-driven analysis.
“Johnniac demonstrated a lot of firsts—a machine that could run hundreds of hours without an error, early program tricks of the trade, a multiuser environment, the first rotating drum printer…and, for a short while, the largest core memory,” Ware said during an interview with IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (July–September 2011, pp. 67–73). Willis moved west after completing his PhD in electrical engineering at Princeton in 1951, dabbling in aerospace engineering at North American Aviation in Los Angeles.
He found the cultural leap a challenge, but from there it was a small geographical leap to RAND’s Santa Monica headquarters, where he spent the next 55 years. RAND’s Johnniac was in development in 1952 when project leader Bill Gunning broke his leg in a skiing accident. With so much expertise concentrated among so few staff, the project was at risk.
Willis modestly recalled that George Brown, then director of RAND’s numerical analysis department, “suddenly realized that RAND had all its Johnniac eggs in one person and would be vulnerable if something more serious were to happen to Bill. Some insurance seemed like a valuable asset to have.” Enter Willis. In the early 1960s he took the reins as head of RAND’s Computer Sciences Department, where Paul Baran conducted his seminal work on packet switching and distributed communications.
Thinking beyond the practical applications of computer technology, Willis predicted with remarkable accuracy how the digital revolution would change—and challenge— society. In 1966 he wrote in a paper presented at RAND, “The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis. 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.” He also recognized that the ubiquity of computers would expose new vulnerabilities by distributing data processing and centralizing data storage.
In 1967 he led a task force of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA) to help defense agencies protect their classified computer systems from unauthorized access, user error, and data loss.1 The “Ware Report” established guidelines for security that remain standard practice today. Decades before data breaches, malware, and phishing began to make headlines, his 1973 paper “Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens”2 decreed, among other things, that there should be no secret data recordkeeping systems and that people should know what information about them is being recorded and have a way to correct it.
He led several committees aimed at safeguarding computer user privacy rights, including the Privacy Protection Commission created by President Gerald Ford, which led to the federal Privacy Act of 1974. Willis honed his analytical talents throughout his long career at RAND, conducting studies for the Air Force and eventually serving as deputy vice president of Project RAND, now RAND Project AIR FORCE. In the 1990s, as more and more personal, business, and government activities came to rely on the Internet, he continued his focus on the vulnerability of the nation’s information infrastructure to external attacks and other kinds of disruptions.
In a study of privacy in medical recordkeeping, he argued for the need to hold organizations accountable for the use of personal medical data, recommending critical legal and procedural changes to safeguard patients’ privacy. In 1994 he was selected as a member of a National Research Council committee to examine national cryptographic policy; policies on data encryption had never before been examined in a cohesive way or by a nongovernmental group.
He received honors too numerous to list, including the Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society, a lifetime achievement award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In 1985 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering and in 2013 inducted into the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame.
He served on more than 30 influential panels and committees of the National Academies; among others, he chaired the Committee to Review the Social Security Administration’s System Modernization and Strategic Plan and the Committee on Computer Security in the Department of Energy. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, American Association for Advancement of Science, and Association for Computing Machinery.
As he wrote in his 2008 “professional memoir,” RAND and the Information Evolution: A History in Essays and Vignettes (RAND Corporation; p. 21), “The history of an organization is more than the sober presentation of such things as major accomplishments, key decisions, changes in corporate name, physical locations, and clients served.
While each is important in its own right, the people who make them happen have their own importance and place in history.” Willis Ware did more than earn his place in that history: He helped create it. He is survived by daughters Alison Ware and Deborah Pinson, son David, and two grandchildren.
1 Security Controls for Computer Systems: Report of Defense Science Board Task Force on Computer Security, ed. Willis H. Ware. RAND Report R-609. 1967 (reissued 1979). Published by the RAND Corporation for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
2 Report of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems. DHEW Publication Number (OS)73-94. Washington: US Government Printing Office.