I admired Caspar Bowden’s mind before I met him in person. That may have been a good thing because - as others have already testified – in person he was a handful. And to deal with that handful properly it was maybe advisable to have a drink in your other hand. Or a blunt object. Or maybe just be the sharpest, wittiest, most intelligent, most probing, most suspicious, most cynical, most V for Vendetta version of yourself that you could possibly manage to be. Because he expected a lot from you and he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
We first meet at a workshop in the autumn of 2005. I have written an extremely detailed, rambling legal account of the fight against the Data Retention Directive, a fight we were about to lose, outlining the procedural intricacies of an EU legislative system that leaves little room for individual advocacy and a lot of room for political gerrymandering. The workshop is only my second foray into academic life after six years spent in legal practice. I expect much of the detail in my paper to go over people’s head, but it is a cause I am passionate about so I decide to stick with it. I start my presentation with a quote from Caspar’s Duke article on “CCTV of the mind”. I have seen his name on the speakers list, so on the off chance, I mention that the author of the quote may be somewhere in the audience. “That’s me”, pipes up the guy sitting directly in front of me. “Great!”, I think, “No pressure there then!”.
He corners me over coffee. He’s not normally a fan of lawyers, he says, but my obsessive eye for the detail of the EU legislative process and the political behind-the-scenes machinations has caught his attention. We chat. I have worked on this paper for months, doing desktop research, finding and reading all the boring background papers, connecting the dots, drawing conclusions. There is nothing new I can tell him, but he looks at me like he is impressed by my forensic abilities. We spend time over dinner, chat. I am a little bit in awe.
We meet again a year later at a conference in Hamburg. I’m surprised he remembers me, but he comes to see what will later be known as “my crazy paper”, says he likes it. We go for drinks. I ask him how he’s been and he tells me that he’s just accepted a position with Microsoft. I nearly choke on my wine and ask him why. “They offered it to me and I was intrigued”, he says. “Maybe I can do something from the inside. Also, I needed a job.”
It becomes a joke between us in the coming years. The fact that the most absolutist, uncompromising privacy fundamentalist I have ever met had gone over to the Dark Side. I tell him I worry that it will grind him down, affect his mental health. Over the years, his denials of that possibility become weaker. But when he finally gets out, he is angry. He rages against the machine even more than before, throws everything he has at it. Everything he has is a lot. He isn’t fond of compromise or restraint. He comes to a workshop I organize and aggressively attacks some of my more esteemed panelists. We have it out on the phone afterwards. ”Sometimes you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, I tell him. He disputes that but is sorry if he has embarrassed me. We agree he’s almost German. Our kind value the truth more than other people’s feelings.
Two years later, autumn 2012. We are asked to work together on organizing a panel for yet another conference. The choice of topic is up to us. The CJEU decision on the Data Retention Directive is imminent and I want it to be about that. To my surprise he disagrees. He wants it to be about mass surveillance in the cloud. It’s more important, he says. We argue. I am busy at the time, he is better prepared. He wins. As it turns out later, he was right.
We start discussing the panel, the speakers, the way we want things to go, whether either of us should speak ourselves. I can sense that he wants to, but it’s not the done thing and I wonder if it is wise. I know him by now and I also know why I was asked to do this with him. I’m to be the moderating influence, the good cop to his bad cop, so that he can go out there and do what needs to be done, what he does best. We lose a panelist at short notice and decide that, yes, he should speak.
A planned brief introduction turns into a 45 minute slide show full of small print text and intricate analysis of complicated FISA provisions, holes in human rights protection, US exceptionalism and the dangers for EU citizens if the EU does nothing.
The picture he paints is scary, borderline crazy. A spy movie, where James Bond is the villain. The audience is rattled. Probably half of them think he’s insane. A tin hatter that doesn’t have to be, can’t be, taken seriously. Because what kind of a world would we be living in, if he was right?
On our panel are representatives from the Commission, the EDPS and the European Parliament. The Commission rep denies that any of the scenarios Caspar paints are ever likely to happen. The others are less certain. Cats and pigeons debate the topic over lunch and Caspar is on his laptop, sending out his slides to everyone who wants them for the rest of the day. The conference ends and we wonder what to do with this now.
We decide to present separate papers at a US conference. Try and raise awareness in the US privacy community at least. He doubts they will follow our call to arms, I am more hopeful. I know he thinks I am naive.
As before, we argue about content, distribution, presentation, method, everything. One Saturday afternoon after shouting at each other for hours on e-mail and skype I decide I’ve had enough. I mail him setting out my position one more time and tell him, “This is a compromise but these are my red lines. Call me if you want to discuss this further. If not, have a nice life.” I don’t get a response and we don’t speak for three months.
Until the next conference we’re both at when he once again corners me during the break.
“Are you still talking to me?”, he asks, somewhat sheepishly.
“I will always be talking to you.” In all honesty, I’m surprised HE’s talking to ME.
“You told me ‘Have a nice life’”, he says.
“I told you ‘Call me if you want to discuss further’“, I respond. “YOU didn’t get back to ME”.
We get coffee, sit down, miss the next two sessions chewing the fat and I realize that this person, who has wandered in and out of my life for the last seven years, has actually become a friend.
In the end only I end up going to the US conference. At the last minute he tells me he’s decided to boycott it because he isn’t happy with the sponsors. I groan but I don’t say anything. I have reservations myself but I make a judgment call. And I want this article out there.
The paper is scheduled for the morning of 7 June 2013. Jet lag wakes me early and a quick perusal of the Guardian website tells me that a black hole in the form of the PRISM revelations has just opened up in the known universe. They publish detailed descriptions of US mass surveillance and it is clear that almost everything Caspar has talked about for the past two years, everything he warned might happen and was dismissed as a crank for, is actually happening already. I send him an e-mail and wish him “Happy ‘I Told You So’ Day”.
They are nine hours ahead and he has already spent them giving interviews and explaining background to a suddenly interested, rabid press. He is exhausted and still somewhat shell-shocked by the extent to which he may have been right all along. He says, “...but sweet Jesus Christ, sort of feels like Columbus stumbling ashore and finding strip malls, McDonalds, and Coca Cola billboards already there...”.
I am borderline hopeful that this might change things, he is already worried that it might blow over. The coming years show that we are both right in our own way. Stuff happens but the Empire re-groups quickly.
I wish him “Happy ‘I Told You So’ Anniversary” in either of the following years but when I do it this year we both already know that it might be the last time. There are plans for a visit in August but nothing firm yet. He is still his usual self and fears are repressed and replaced by the hope that his stubbornness might help him to fight this one too. Then his name flashes up in the subject line of several e-mail alerts and I know. As my various tech lists and social media accounts explode in tributes I feel numb. We have lost a friend but, more than that, a very noticeable gap in our ranks has just opened up that we will now somehow have to close. How are we going to do that?
How important can one person be to the world, to a cause? Except to our loved ones, we are all of us replaceable, we have to be. But if one person with his knowledge, his experience, his analytical skills, his tenacity and his pure natural born ability to piss off the powers-that-be and hold them to task, if this one person is no longer around, will that make a difference in the fights we have yet to fight?
It will make a difference to me, for sure. There are very few people I know, who will always be on the other end of an e-mail, a tweet or a skype call whenever I need a question answered, an idea critiqued, a project have its tires kicked. He was one of those people and I will miss him terribly for that.
But more importantly, I know that his job isn’t finished and that there are fights coming up where his absence will be felt. He was keenly aware of that himself and I know it must have killed him, the idea that he would not be around for that.
In the days after his death I read a few obituaries and am reassured by the overwhelming outpouring of love and respect for him and his work, both from his friends and from the tech community. All of a sudden I have this image in my head where he has been mischievous one last time and where he has staged his exit a month or two early just to be able to see all this for himself. Where he still is around somewhere, bending over his laptop, smirking in amusement at the memories we share and the things we say about him that maybe we wouldn’t have told him to his face.
It is wishful thinking, of course, but it is also evidence of that tin hatting quality we both shared. Never believe the obvious, always consider the alternative. Why is this lying bastard lying to me now? If he was still out there and read this, I know it would make him laugh. He’d probably be proud of me for suspecting.
There is a big part of me that wants that picture to be real because I would want him to know how well respected he was by everyone, even those who argued back. Maybe especially those who argued back. I’m not sure he always did know that.
He was a friend, a fellow traveller and a goddamn nuisance. He was that guy who would argue with you until they throw both of you out of the restaurant. That guy who just wouldn’t shut up even when you wanted him to. And he would encourage you to continue and fight long after you would normally have given up from exhaustion. He didn’t expect anything less of you.
Neither of us believed in a supreme power or any kind of heaven or hell, I think. But it is difficult to accept that an energy like that can simply just vanish. If there is an afterlife of any kind, I hope that those who rule it are ready for him. Because if they're not, they won't know what hit them.