Obituary: Caspar Bowden, a fearless privacy pioneer

Caspar Bowden, privacy advocate and campaigner. Rama, CC BY-SA

The world’s privacy advocates are reeling over the loss of one of their most influential and feared campaigners, Caspar Bowden, who has died of cancer. His fierce and combative evangelism for online privacy over two decades and surgical analysis of complex surveillance legislation raised the standard of commentary that influenced advocacy groups at home and abroad.

I had the honour and the pleasure of becoming a close friend and co-conspirator of Caspar. It wasn’t always easy – he held high expectations of his colleagues, who could often experience his wrath whenever they dared to negotiate with “the bastards” (whoever they happened to be at the time). The archaic American expression “ornery” could well have been invented for Caspar Bowden, as his opponents well knew.

In conferences and meetings where officials and ministers appeared there was frequently what became known as the “popcorn moment”, when Caspar would stand up and, from the back of the hall, clear his throat and launch into a devastating critique that would utterly destroy the credibility of his opponents. Within two years, ministerial staffers were routinely calling me to find out whether Caspar would be in the audience. No better tribute could ever be awarded to any campaigner.

Caspar Bowden, mid ‘popcorn moment’. Rama, CC BY-SA

Caspar joined the mainstream privacy world in 1997 during the Scrambling for Safety encryption event that I organised at the London School of Economics, and soon after he co-founded the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), which became the most astute think-tank in Britain in the field of surveillance.

At the time Caspar chaired Scientists for Labour, an organisation which at the time believed that the Labour Party (which had been elected to government only 18 days earlier) would actually respect scientific advice. The reams of dangerous and intrusive legislation the Labour government subsequently passed caused him to ditch this fantasy. In the years since Caspar appeared to abandon all faith in parties, taking pride in comparisons with TV character Mr MacKay in the comedy series Porridge, who famously said: “I have a job to do and, whatever else I am, I’m firm but fair. I want you to know that I treat you all with equal contempt”.

In 2002 Caspar joined Microsoft’s operation in Europe as chief privacy strategist, but the arrangement was a bad fit. Caspar continued to be outspoken, eventually parting company with Microsoft after he criticised the lack of privacy measures in its software and the firm’s cosiness with US government spooks. Years before Snowden’s revelations about US and UK mass surveillance in 2013, Bowden had already become deeply worried about the relationship between companies and security agencies – with his arguments about the safety of cloud data proven true by the subsequent leaks.

Gus Hosein, executive director of Privacy International and an an old friend and colleague said:

I’m not new to this issue, but whenever I struggle to get my head around the implications of a new policy or technology, I always looked to Caspar. I sought his guidance to navigate it, but I feared what he would say if I came out with something stupid. The future is uncertain enough, but without him it is even more daunting.

Caspar was very accurately described by another close friend and colleague Ian Brown, professor of Information Security and Privacy at Oxford University:

Caspar was a truly unique individual, one of the most passionate, methodical, relentless advocates of any cause I have met. I learnt so much from him as we worked together on and off for nearly 20 years on privacy issues. His forensic analysis of UK surveillance laws, and later European and US legislation, was essential reading for anyone who wanted to understand the implications of some extremely obscure language – including legislators themselves.

Brown believes UK internet users are still benefiting from Caspar’s successful campaign to remove “Big Browser” surveillance powers from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and to ensure the burden of proof was not put onto individuals who might have actually forgotten passwords later demanded by police. His important reports for the European Parliament will also be key in the long-term decisions made by the EU to protect the privacy of its 500m citizens.

Anyone who knew Caspar understood that he was dogged in his later years by a deep cynicism about progress in privacy. Deeply mistrustful of governments, corporations and even the law, he eschewed mobile phones and came to place his faith almost solely on mathematical solutions, for example by heavily promoting the concept of differential privacy, which attempts to prevent a loss of privacy in situations where details can be inferred from other data.

Perhaps Caspar’s greatest legacy is that, in an age of increasing compromise, he showed us the importance of dogged, non-negotiable persistence. As George Bernard Shaw observed, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. In that respect, Caspar was a beacon of progress.

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