The Crown Plaza Hotel, Jerusalem. 25th October, 2010. Site of the 32nd International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners. If you want to talk safe harbours or data minimisation, you’re certainly at the right place. I stumble off the stage, having just spoken at the Public Voice Civil Society Meeting put together by EPIC. I’ve flown from India to Israel with a layover in London, recently jailbroken from the hospital after an injury, and delivered myself of a no-holds barred critique of the Indian biometric ID project. I’m jet lagged, ill, sleep-deprived and hungry. But I can’t eat or sleep just yet, because I’m accosted by a rather cranky gentleman who inserts himself between me and the snacks, and suggests that I am either very brave or incredibly foolish. Possibly both.
Years of law school and real life as a lawyer have primed me for responding in autopilot to most things. Nothing has quite prepared me for Caspar Bowden’s left hook. He goes on to explain, in the tones of one dealing with a 5 year old imbecile, that, as a practising technology lawyer in India, I should be representing several global IT vendors and consultants falling over themselves to be involved with the largest biometrics database the world has ever known. Instead, I appear to publicly rip it to pieces, making my priors known and quite possibly disqualifying myself from earning a single rupee from this identity cash cow. Ergo, foolish. Or, could it be that I was the one Indian he’d met who was on the right side (his side) of this amoral and venal scheme? Possibly. In fact, incredibly likely. Largely because — and here he looks really bewildered — because he had never heard anyone mention Monty Python and data protection in the same sentence. Who had masterfully delivered the single best Life of Brian analogy he had ever heard. Which merited some respect. Even if I was quite possibly stupid. In fact, almost certainly so.
The start of a beautiful friendship? Not exactly. But over the course of the evening, mediated by the Yoda-like presence of EFF’s Lee Tien and the appearance of dinner, things mellowed. He took me around, introducing me — a newbie in this privacy world — to people he knew. “This is Miss Privacy India”, he’d say, before rushing me off to accost yet another information commissioner who simply had to hear about India’s diabolical project. When I tartly requested “Do you think you could stop making it sound like I’m Miss Universe?”, I received the surprised but totally straight response: “But in my world, that’s the same thing!”. That’s when we became friends.
Over the years, we met on the same conference circuit, surrounded by the usual suspects. We’d share our frustration about legal developments and government idiocy. He’d rant about ‘charlatans and crooks’, ‘sinister drafting’, ‘disingenuous politicians’. He’d draw diagrams on paper napkins when excited, wanting to show someone how TOR worked. Jump up and gesticulate wildly, as if solving a Rubik’s cube, describing YouProve and anonymous credentials. He boycotted conferences he’d urged me to attend (after I’d bought my flights) on grounds that the sponsors were evil. He could be brilliant on stage and a troll when in the audience, banging on about US exceptionalism and FISA. He’d confess to me after that he may have gone too far, but it was better than not having idiot bureaucrats understand fundamentals. He wasn’t a lawyer, but had a finer legal mind than most.
I write this to share my grief at his passing, but also my anger at him for — typically — making himself scarce without enough notice. I knew he was ill. Having had a family bereavement, I wasn’t able to make it to France to visit him in the hospital. But we emailed and tweeted often, hanging on to dark humour and the genius for British understatement as he had tests done and diagnoses returned. As soon as I heard of his passing, I tweeted that the only photograph I have with him was — fittingly — taken outside the stage production of 1984 in London. I invited him to see it after a conference at the Royal Society, having managed last minute returns to the sold out show. His refusal to carry a cell phone made coordination almost impossible, yet he showed up a few minutes late, thanking me for having enough faith in him to blow money on his ticket without having had a response to my email. The usher offered him a copy of the synopsis to follow, having sequestered us with other latecomers in front of a screen until they could sneak us in during a lull. I will never forget the look on his face then; horrified that anyone should doubt that he knew every line of the text, let alone the intricacies of the plot.
We emerged from the play, both delighted that it still had the power to horrify and chill us, strangely relieved that working in the space hadn’t rendered us immune or blasé. Walking by the poster outside the theatre, I suggested a selfie. He laughed, knowing it was the least likely thing for either of us to want, and agreed it would be the pitch-perfect ending to the evening. That is the only picture I have with my dear friend and rabble-rousing comrade.
I didn’t tweet that picture. Because, you know, privacy. Yet, I feel compelled to share snippets from the last few emails that we exchanged. Possibly because they encapsulate the man. But largely because, in sharing them with the community that loved and respected him, even if he managed to piss them off at regular intervals, I show those who didn’t know he was ill just how much of a rockstar he was, right to the very end.
CB: 10 April, 2015: 08:54
bcc: (non-)update to very few who are aware of my situation
just been told previous tests insufficient, must do more on Monday, then
can expect another 10 days delay for an actual, you know diagnosis
not very happy about that, feel like Schrodinger’s Caspar
MJ: 20 April, 2015: 13:17
If you hear a lot of swearing at the universe, it might be me.
MJ: 21 April, 2015, 11:28:
CB: 21 April, 13:29:
“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a
fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
begin chemo in a week, I will be mr.baldy
nobody telling me chances, but from now on I gather it is unlikley ever
to go away, here comes finitude.
MJ: 21 April, 2015: 17:50
Do you know what kind it is, what this “thing” is?
You’ve fought all your life. RIPA, privacy harms, idiots, policy wankers, techie boffins, stupid laws and a multitude of bollocks. You will fight this too. I know you shouldn’t have to but that ship has sailed, I suppose.
I was with a friend (Marc Abrahams, who created the IgNobel prize) when I got your mail. He saw I looked upset and asked if everything was okay. I told him a friend was ill. He said (without knowing who it was) “If it’s a friend of yours, they’ll know how to fight it.” He knows I don’t suffer fools and wusses.
I replied “He’s a stubborn fucker. I hope so.” To which he said “Write and tell him that. He’ll enjoy hearing it. Again, if he’s a friend of yours.”
I then realised the initials for stubborn fucker are the same as for Supreme Fascist. Paul Erdös’ name for god. I thought you would like that very much.
I wish there was more I could do than share gallows humour. But you know I worry and am a phone call away.
Chin up. It’ll make the hair loss manageable. Rakish angles help confer dashing good looks.
(For what it’s worth, I had to leave Berkman early today because I had some awful health issues too, and spend a fun afternoon dealing with the labyrinthine American medical system. Now I will spend the rest of the day worrying about who has my data and what they’re doing with it. Yes, I can’t help being me.)
Yours in sympathy and empathy.
CB: 22 April, 2015: 03:18
Sarcoma in my arm, spread to lungs
You inspire fortitude. I can’t even write much, ‘cos have to type 2.5
fingers cos of bloody tumour
I know what I must do (long deferred privacy memoirs), and will be
focussed and fierce.
We never did get the promised memoirs, though he had embarked on a quest to dictate them to an amanuensis. But worse, most of us never got to say goodbye. As he might have offered by way of explanation, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”.
Right up to a couple weeks ago, he was sharing privacy news on Twitter, publicly as well as through the private Twitter account he’d permitted 46 people to have access to, sharing group updates when his arm hurt too much to type individual mails:
Freedom of the Press @FreedomofPress Jun 8
Anyone saying “Snowden should tell his story to a jury” doesn’t understand how Espionage Act leak trials work. https://freedom.press/ZwE
Fight for the Future @fightfortheftr Jun 25
A small business owner Shouldn’t have to publicize her home address just to have a website. https://www.respectourprivacy.com
I had asked (in May) where the curious profile picture for his private Twitter account had been taken. It featured him in a pink Polo shirt, posing with dramatic swagger before a large open-jawed dinosaur poised right above his head. His response is how I’d like to remember him:
“hubris oblivious to impending fate, dinosaur park Pacific NorthWest”