Arjen painted by Jillis Groen, after a photo of Arjen at TEDxDelft 2018 I think.

Friday evening I went to the Vrijland estate near Schaarsbergen/Arnhem. This former hq of the Dutch 11th Air Mobile Brigade (who still reside nearby) is currently used by the Hack42 collective. Here the book launch of “Infosecurity (Gran knows why)” and opening of the art exhibition “Into Nothingness” took place, in the former chapel of the estate.

Arjen Kamphuis was well known for his work on government transparency, and especially IT and online security. He e.g trained journalists on how to do their work more safely, and consulted various companies on their IT security. He also e.g. consulted the Dutch government in 2013 on why using voting computers is bad practice in an accountable democracy. Next to that he was an avid hiker and mountaineer. In August 2018, during a trip in the north of Norway he went missing, and is presumed to have died due to a kajaking accident. I’ve known Arjen through his work for well over a decade (and I’ve written about his disappearance here before). I’m sad about his disappearance, and as a result have been more active in paying what I learned from him and what he made me aware of forward since then.

Friends of Arjen have collected a selection of his writings and talks, as well as the text of his 2014 book “Information Security for Journalists” (2017 Dutch translation) that he wrote together with journalist Silkie Carlo. Friday they launched a printed version of that collection with the title “Infosecurity (Gran knows why)“. The subtitle is a reference to Arjen’s grandmother who, having witnessed WWII is said to have inspired him in his government accountability work, and in being alert to surveillance overreach like we are experiencing now in this digital age.

The launch saw some short speeches by friends and colleagues, and the chapel setting in part made it feel like for some it was also a way to say goodbye, a way to organise some sort of closure. Next to the book launch, it was also the opening of the exhibition “Into Nothingness” with paintings by Jillis Groen. Scenes from Norway’s nature and Arjen’s disappearing form.

Audience listening to Helma de Boer presenting the book

A year ago Arjen Kamphuis went missing in northern Norway. Given Arjen’s personal and professional history, various scenarios were all possible to his friends and family. As time went on without news, the question whatever happened morphed into dealing with the ever diminishing probability of his return.

When his belongings were found near and in the water shortly after he went missing, an accident seemed a logical conclusion, but then his phone was activated in the south of Norway. In the past year this has led to various conspiracy theories, who when rebuffed by Arjan’s family and friends, were extended to include them.

Norwegian police have now released a statement they consider his disappearance as a closed case (a machine translation of a Norwegian news article). They now announced that his phone and other belongings such as his laptop, were found and taken by two truck drivers who had been fishing near the spot Arjen went missing. The truck drivers are cleared from any suspicion, and a kajaking accident is the most likely explanation.

I’m sure the CTs will continue on (‘Why were the truck drivers never mentioned before? They were Eastern European, so likely Russian operatives!’). I do hope, even in the absence of absolute certainty, his family and friends can have some peace of mind over what happened.

I’ve know Arjen for a long time, and in our infrequent but regular interactions it was great to get a taste of his brilliant and active mind. Since his disappearance I’ve more actively taken up the topic of information security, paying what I learned from Arjen forward to those around me. There’s never much to learn from random tragedy itself, except what Arjen’s close friend Ancilla wrote late last year, to truly care and be curious about how those around you are doing, and to keep them close, to spend time with them.

As I said earlier, in relation to Elmine and I spending the effort to go to Canada for a few days of conversation and hanging out

The simple act of spending time together talking about life for a while [as Peter described it] is a rather rich and powerful thing to do, which packs the full complexity of being human.

In conversation with Arjen during a roof top lunch 11 years ago. The oldest photo I can find of our conversations.

Arjen Kamphuis went missing in August, and there’s still no clue as to what might have happened to him. All scenarios are open (even if those aren’t the scenarios feverish twitterati still keep dreaming up, replacing sparse facts with dopamine oozing speculation): an accident, someone did something to him, or a self chosen disappearance. His friend Ancilla van de Leest writes evocatively about what it means to his close ones to not know. The mix of hope, heart break, guilt and optimism against the odds. Because for each of the scenarios there’s a way to rationalise it as what might have happened. Yet, they all carry their own form of deep pain, and should Arjan return, by now it will not be the same Arjan that went missing. There’s a road forwards, but it’s never a road back to the spot you came from. That point in time is forever unreachable in the available evolutionary space, whatever may follow.

As Ancilla writes, for every scenario there are clues that potentially match. One scenario is self disappearance, and she points to what the combination of an active brain, stress, and a bit of isolation can do. It’s one part of why I find her posting so evocative. I know what it’s like to have your brain on fire, and how the notion emerges to just lose oneself, walking off into the mountains on my own. At times people have known how I was, but precisely at such potential inflection points they didn’t. I would never have allowed them to know.

I know Arjen since over a decade. His work on open government, open source and then increasingly privacy and cyber security, regularly overlaps in terms of events, network connections and content with some of the work I do. So we bump into each other. On a long late train ride to Enschede with us the only two passengers in the entire compartment, a good time ago, we discussed the state of the world and our work for governments. I told him I am an optimist. Arjen said I had to be, as I am a father. He’s right. Fatherhood is a reason I’m optimistic. An older reason however is that it’s a survival tactic from decades ago, back when it was tempting to disappear. It’s not a choice really. I have to.

That’s the second reason Ancilla’s words resonate with me, likely also because she recently became a parent too. Where she writes that whatever your perception of the state of the world, commit to keeping the ones you hold dear close, to ensure you know how they feel and vice versa. It’s a path out of the struggle with conflicting emotions she describes. Out of the struggle, by embracing the conflict. It’s not a choice really, I think. She has to.

We all have to.
Making sense, even built out of ratio, is deeply emotional.