Caspar Bowden

Caspar died today. Three simple words that encompass so much.

Twitter has, understandably and gratifyingly, lit up with messages of condolence, admiration and regret – and so it should. The privacy advocacy community has lost one of its most capable members, and feels that loss keenly. But we are all affected by the issues on which Caspar fought: the regulation and availability of cryptography, the interception of communications, the governance of surveillance, the equal application of human rights. There isn’t a person on the planet whose interests are unaffected by these issues, and we are worse off for losing Caspar’s efforts on our behalf.

Let me give two three little snapshots from my memories of Caspar.

The first is from a meeting of the Enterprise Privacy Group, in about 2007. Two or three of us had just arrived and were clustered near the coffee table, talking about ethics and data protection. Caspar arrived, and was pouring himself a cup of coffee a few feet away from our group. He carried it over to us and, as he arrived, said

“Well, I favour a Rawlsian model – because unless you can point to a basis in justice, none of the other approaches can work anyway.”

It wasn’t said as a put-down or out of intellectual snobbery; he had simply grasped the essentials of our conversation within the time it took to pour a cup of coffee, and was contributing his conclusion. Of course, the rest of us had to sneak off later and Google “Rawls on Justice” to refresh our memories <cough>, but the truth of it is, in the work I’ve done on ethical data-handling in the last couple of years, I have come back, time and again, to the principles Caspar set out in that conversation some 8 years ago.

There was mischief in Caspar too, and my second snapshot is from Berlin, where Caspar and I were among the invited participants in an Article 29 Working Group meeting. As ever, a group beer was proposed for the evening, and we all piled into taxis to get to an otherwise unremarkable Bierhof somewhere outside the city. I found it hard to believe that we couldn’t have found somewhere just as good in town, and grumbled something to Caspar along those lines. He, of course, knew exactly where we were, and said “Yes – but there’s a certain irony, isn’t there, in drinking beer with a group of European Data Protection Supervisors, right next to the Wannsee”.

The third is from QCon 2014, where Caspar gave a talk on “Mistrusting Trust”. The talk was excellent, and you can replay it here… but my abiding memory wasn’t that; it was that about 4 minutes in (as you’ll see if you watch the video), Caspar’s laptop reset, and threatened to melt down. It was overheating partly because it was a bit old, but partly because Caspar was running Qubes on it, so as to be able to boot a virtual OS in order to show his slides. Now, lots of privacy advocates love the idea of only using virtual machines, and killing them in between sessions of browsing, email and whatever… but an awful lot of us can’t be bothered to go to the inconvenience, when it comes down to it. Caspar could – even if it almost reduced his laptop to a pool of smoking black plastic in front of an audience.

To say that people sacrifice privacy for convenience is such a cliché most of us don’t even reflect on it any more. But Caspar’s example should remind us that too many of us sacrifice more than just privacy for the sake of a little convenience. Caspar had always done his homework. How many of us hold forth on the laws governing data protection, interception, surveillance and so on without actually having read them all the way through? I know I’m guilty on that score – but Caspar had read them – and not just for one country, but for the UK, and the US, and the EU, and France, and so on. How many of us read them and then forget the detail, or don’t bother to really think through the implications, and publish our analysis, and fight for how we think it should be?

And of course it wasn’t just the law. As his comment on Rawls indicates, Caspar was scarily well read in all kinds of areas, and he had a level of recall which many policymakers had occasion to find embarrassing.

Yes, he could be abrupt, and yes, he often ‘bent’ convention by asking direct and probing questions in ways that risked alienating the policymakers he sought to influence. But I never saw him do so rudely, inappropriately, or in a way that demonstrated anything less than total integrity. That took strong moral principles, intellectual rigour, and courage.

Caspar – thank you for your dedication; we’re worse off without you, and we’ll miss you. And I wish I’d said that to you before you died.

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2 thoughts on “Caspar Bowden

  1. Nicholas Bohm says:

    I was amongst the audience at a meeting in the Law Society’s hall to which David Blunkett, former Home Secretary, professed a Damascene conversion to privacy. Caspar was there too, and it was too much for him – “Bullshit!” he called with his usual vigour. A happy memory.

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