Friday 10 July 2015

In praise of Caspar Bowden

Many people are feeling pretty relieved that Caspar Bowden will no longer be challenging them on a wide range of privacy issues.  His recent death, announced yesterday, has removed one of the most robust critics of the surveillance community, a person who could be infuriatingly perceptive about the ways Governments tried to monitor communications technologies.

I first met Caspar a good few years ago – and while I could respect him for his deep understanding of so many technical privacy and surveillance matters, I found it hard to relax in his company. His passion for privacy was unequivocal. A pragmatist he wasn’t. And he didn't care who he upset in ensuring that his views were heard.

Often exasperating? Oh yes. Opinionated? Indeed, yes. I’ve heard may a conference chairman mutter a few more adjectives about him, too. In the conference arena, his message came across with uncompromising clarity. He would make his views known regardless of whether he was speaking from the podium or from the floor.

I remember one occasion a few years ago in Westminster, when I was organising a range of witnesses to address the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the draft Communications Data Bill. Early one evening I received an email from a clearly annoyed Caspar, demanding to be told why he had not yet been asked to address the Committee. He was a busy man, and needed to make time in his schedule to be available to explain some of the remarks that he had made in a detailed paper that had recently submitted for the Committee’s consideration.

I wondered whether I should point out that it was generally the case that Parliamentary Committees would decide who they wanted to hear from. It was not up to witnesses to determine whether they had a right to address a Committee.

I placated Caspar by explaining that I thought he might make the most impact by being one of the last witnesses to be called – leaving the Committee of MPs and Peers (one of whom is now the minister for Data Protection) with a much stronger impression of who he was and what he stood for.

He liked that idea – and even gave me a friendly smile the next time we met. He was determined to tell those parliamentarians a thing or two.

And he did.