Thursday, July 09, 2015

RIP Caspar

It's hard to believe but privacy activist, Caspar Bowden, has died following a short battle with cancer.

My first encounter with Caspar was on a listserv when he was director (and co-founder) of the Foundation for Information Policy Research. I believe it was the late 1990s but he was telling me off for spelling his name wrong. I apologised and we subsequently became friends. The substance of what we were discussing is lost to my memory but I suspect it was something around key eschrow and the original crypto wars at the time. It's shocking that Caspar should be lost to the security and privacy community just as that ugly battle is rearing its head again, with politicians and securocrats both sides of the Atlantic demanding back door access to encryption.

Combative and prickly, Caspar was also unfailingly kind and generous.

Whilst at FIPR Caspar worked tirelessly to inform parliamentarians and the public of the personal data pollution dangers of the burgeoning information age and ill designed regulations like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). He won the Winston award in 2000 for his work on RIPA and he carried that activism into his role as Chief Privacy Officer of Microsoft (initially for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, then for 40 countries worldwide) between 2002 and 2011. 

Long before the Snowden revelations, Caspar was warning of the nature of a huge range of privacy invading behaviour, commercial and governmental, and the facilitating evolving regulations round the world; not least the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 1978 (FISA) and the FISA Amendments Act 2008, in particular s1881, subsequently implemented as s702 FISA, Procedures for targeting certain persons outside the United States other than United States persons. His report, "The US surveillance programmes and their impact on EU citizens' fundamental rights", for the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee of the EU parliament is the definitive document on the subject.

It was Caspar's insistence on publicly spreading the word about this s702 'guilty of being a foreigner' provision of FISA that he recently explained led to his parting of the ways with Microsoft. 

Caspar was a big believer in a Rawlsian model of justice, a stickler when it came to the universality of human rights and was unstinting in his criticism of corporate or government entities or agents who sought to undermine those rights and principles; and even of US civil rights organisations who he felt passively endorsed the notion of better rights for US citizens.

He was a member of the board of directors of the Tor project. In recent times had become convinced of the potential of Qubes to form at least part of the technical architecture of a counter-insurgency against the seemingly all powerful, unstoppable erosion of personal privacy, by corporate and government agencies and others. 

Caspar was a rare polymath, an expert practitioner in the computer science, the laws of multiple jurisdictions, the technology more generally, identity management and information ethics. And he was prepared to wrestle with the user unfriendly inconveniences of privacy enhancing technologies, as the almost meltdown of his laptop, 4 minutes into his 'Reflections on Mistrusting Trust' talk at QCon last summer, demonstrated. 

For some time he had been contemplating and working on the establishment of a pan-European privacy rights organisation. It would be an appropriate legacy if an effective sustainable such institution could be brought into being.

There were few, if any, more deeply informed, active, passionate and energetic advocates for the privacy cause. Caspar you will be sadly missed. My thoughts and condolences go to your wife Sandi and family.

Update: a truly lovely personal tribute to Caspar by Malavika Jayaram, So long and thanks for all the fish, Caspar Bowden. Other really nice pieces from Natasha Lomas, Chris Soghoian, Robin Wilton, John Leonard, Ben Goldacre, Danny O'Brien, Martin Hoskins, Wendy Grossman, Simon Davies, Joanna Rutkowska, the Open Rights Group,, Sarah Clarke, Phil Booth, EDRi, the Tor Project, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here.

Update 2: Guardian Obituary by Ross Anderson and tribute from John Naughton.