Remembering Caspar Bowden on “The Cloud Conspiracy”

“We live in a comic book.” It’s what friends and I say to remind one another that the dystopian future Orwell and others ominously predicted have come true. But just as the dastardly deeds of corrupt government officials and other villains implementing panoptic surveillance on the scale of Hollywood’s best plots has come true, so too have regular people like you and me been transformed into comic book-like super heroes.

Last week, privacy campaigner Caspar Bowden passed away from a malignant melanoma cancer. He was 53 years old. Caspar Bowden is most recently famous for independently deducing the existence of illegal NSA mass domestic and foreign spying (global warrantless wiretapping) using only publicly available sources such as public record legal documents. He was roundly ignored and sidelined, immediately being fired from his position as Chief Privacy Advisor at Microsoft, but he rose to renewed prominence after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that his deductions were correct.

Caspar Bowden became a strong proponent of Free, Libre, Open Source Software (FLOSS) and joined the board of the Tor Project. In 2014, he gave a speech at the 31st Chaos Communications Congress titled “The Cloud Conspiracy” about his story. Like any thrilling comic book, it begins with an internal board meeting at the headquarters of one of the world’s corporate superpowers:

For 9 years, I was Chief Privacy Advisor at Microsoft. And I have to explain a bit about what that job was. I didn’t have any responsibility for legal compliance, thankfully. I didn’t do anything, really, in US privacy.

My job was to advise 40 “National Technology Officers” around the world. And at Microsoft, a National Technology Officer is a guy with a big brain, often one or two Ph.D.s, able to function essentially as Microsoft’s ambassador to governments around the world at a very senior level, normally citizens of their own country. In a sense, you could boil down their job to: if Steve Ballmer wanted to get a Prime Minister on the phone in half an hour, it was the NTO’s job to get that done.

So, I didn’t know about [the NSA’s secret spying program now known as] PRISM when I was at Microsoft, and what I’m about to tell you I deduced from open sources and deciding to read the American laws. Nobody asked me to do this. What happened to me after that I explained to a big internal Microsoft strategy conference about cloud computing, with all of the cloud management there, all of my National Technology Officers there, the deputy general counsel of Microsoft there, what I’d discovered. And I said to my technology officers, “Look, you ought to know this. If you sell Microsoft cloud computing to your own governments, then this law means that the NSA can conduct unlimited mass surveillance on that data.”

So the deputy general counsel at Microsoft turned green. I’d never seen anyone turn green before, but she did. There was dead silence in the room. In the coffee break, I was threatened with being fired, and then two months later they did fire me without cause.

So, since then, I’ve really, since 2011, went around trying to tell as many people as I could about what I’d discovered. And I’ve given variants of this speech now about 20 times, I suppose. But I hope this brings things right up to date as of about 2 weeks ago, and also, I’m going to tell you some things which I haven’t told before.

In the speech that follows, Caspar gives a breathtakingly detailed yet accessible overview of the legal, political, economic, and societal pressures that lead to total deadlock in the European Union’s highest level of government, leaving its citizens vulnerable to the NSA’s predations and other increasingly militarized cyber-intelligence operations.

Watch Caspar Bowden’s whole speech here.

So. “We live in a comic book.” Are you a 1 or a zero?