Thursday, July 09, 2015

Goodbye Caspar

I think I first met Caspar Bowden back in 2007.

I first encountered him at privacy conferences, where he would, without fail, be the first person to the microphone anytime a tech company employee or government official spoke, and he would hammer them with the most uncomfortable, probing questions about privacy and surveillance.

The thing is, there are very few new faces on the privacy circuit. Many of these people had encountered Caspar before and had been on the receiving end of his unpleasant questions. If they gave a bullshit answer, the next time he asked the question, he would come prepared with material to respond. If they evaded, the next time he asked the question, he would mention how many times they had evaded it. He was relentless. It worked. He would ask the same questions over and over, until he finally browbreat them into giving an honest answer, on the record, in front of a room full of privacy experts, officials, and academics.

As a young, green activist, I was in awe.

Moreover, Caspar had somehow convinced Microsoft to hire him, to pay him a good wage, allow him to travel around the world, with a corporate Amex card, while he took the mic and railed against the very privacy-invading corporations who were paying his mortgage. Microsoft was for some reason keeping one of the biggest privacy curmudgeons in Europe on its payroll.

Microsoft has been, and continues to be, a total trainwreck on privacy. I always assumed that Microsoft kept Caspar around, in spite of his rough edges, because he provided the company with blunt, useful, internal feedback on their own products and services before they launched. If they listened to Caspar, it meant they would avoid a public flogging from public interest advocates. 

Eventually, Microsoft fired him. I don't know if it was because the company tired of his public shenanigans, because he was, unlike many of his corporate shill peers at Microsoft, not willing to tow the obviously deceptive company line about its commitment to privacy, or, as Caspar later hinted, because he was increasingly voicing his concerns internally about FISA Amendments Act Section 702 and the ease with which the US government could spy on the cloud computing services, such as those provided by Microsoft, which were used by non-Americans.

But once Microsoft fired him, he dedicated himself to warning everyone he could about the way in which the NSA, through the FISA Amendments Act, could spy on the world. Caspar saw PRISM coming, and he tried to warn the world. But few would listen.

I remember in the week or two before the CCC Camp, in the summer of 2011, trying to convince Caspar to change the slides he planned to use for his talk (video) on FISA surveillance. They looked like a bottle of Doc Bronner's soap, words packed into every available inch of white space. They were impossible for the average attendee to understand, and would make him look crazy, as he stood on stage talking about a global NSA Internet dragnet. Caspar disagreed, and said that it was important to include as much useful information, the more the better, so that people watching at home could look it all up themselves.

Caspar knew he was right about what we now know as PRISM, he knew that the US government and US corporate interests were engaged in an active disinformation campaign to muddy the water on the issue of US government surveillance of cloud computing, and sadly, he could come off as a bit of a crank.

But he was right. He was so damn right.

Caspar taught me a lot, both by showing me what to do, and what not to do. I really looked up to him, and now he's gone.


I'll miss you Caspar.