The Mysterious Vanishing of Arjen Kamphuis

Arjen Kamphuis was a prominent Dutch cybersecurity expert and known hacktivist who was especially dedicated to protecting investigative journalists, free speech, and democracy, and deeply interested in the strategic impact of new technological developments and the social, economic and geo-political impact of science and technology. He worked for IBM and Twynstra Gudde as an IT architect, trainer and IT strategy advisor, as well as for other cybersecurity firms, and was heavily involved in securing the information systems of corporates, national government and NGO’s, and also in formulating public IT policy in the areas of open standards and open source for the government and public sector. By all accounts he was highly respected in his field, a sought-after international speaker on technology policy issues, and an invaluable tech advisor for senior managers and administrators of companies and public institutions, members of parliament in several European countries and the Dutch Cabinet. He would also become the center of a mysterious vanishing that has never been fully solved, and which is orbited by weird clues and dark conspiracies. 

In August of 2018, Kamphuis was on holiday in Bodø, in northern Norway and as he travelled a lot there was at the time nothing particularly strange about his being there. On August 20 he checked out of his hotel and told friends and associates that he planned to take the train to Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city, about 10 hours away, after which he said he was going fly back to Amsterdam two days after that. However, he never did show up at the airport gate, he never did get on that plane, and failed to return to work as scheduled. No one was able to contact him after this, and it would soon be found that he hadn’t even gotten on the train to Trondheim as scheduled. Police were notified, but an extensive search could find no trace of where he had gone or his movements after leaving that hotel, and it was as if he had vanished into thin air. 

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Arjen Kamphuis

A few days after this, his ID card was pulled from nearby Arctic waters, and not long after this a kayak with a hole in the hull and an oar were found on the shore of a fjord about 50km (30 miles) from Bodø, which was believed to have belonged to Kamphuis, as he had bought one during his trip and had made mention to friends about wanting to go kayaking in the fjords. Security cameras from a nearby business recorded a kayak which resembled the one Arjen had used, and at the time it was simply believed that he had gone off kayaking and had an accident, case closed. However, he had not mentioned going out to do this after leaving the hotel, but rather had said he would take a train he never got on and a plane he never boarded. Had this been a spontaneous kayaking excursion that had gone horribly wrong or was there more to it? Friends and family insisted that he was no daredevil and would not have gone out to the fjords without telling anyone, so the whole thing was already suspicious. 

Another weird clue that would turn up is that, although the kayak had been found 50 km from where he had been staying, 10 days after his disappearance both his work and personal mobile phones were briefly switched on at Vikeså near Stavanger, which is about 1,700 km (1,056 miles) from Bodø. Data showed that the device had last been used in the vicinity of Vikesa on August 30 for approximately 20 minutes, after which its SIM card had been removed and replaced with a German one. Why should this be? Police would claim that the phone had been picked up and taken to that location by some truck drivers while they were fishing close to where his kayak was found, who were found to have had no connection to the disappearance, but many were not convinced, and as the news hit the media there were plenty of sinister conspiracies swirling about.

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Considering Kamphuis’ position as a cybersecurity expert and hacktivist, one theory that was immediately latched onto was that his disappearance was linked to this in some way. It was noted that one of his clients was the international anti-secrecy and whistleblower organization WikiLeaks, and that he had had close contact with Australian editor, publisher, cypherpunk activist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is wanted in the United States for leaking classified government documents through the WikiLeaks platform. Indeed, he was alleged to have helped some WikiLeaks members with advice on avoiding cybersnooping and government surveillance, and so the idea is that this, along with his outspoken stance for online privacy rights and criticism of secret services, had led to him being kidnapped or even assassinated by the US, British or Russian secret services, perhaps even Islamic terrorists. Another idea was that he had been assassinated in relation to secret cyber work he was doing for the Norwegian military, as the headquarters of the Norwegian army, including a cyber-defense unit, just happen to be located near Bodø. Coincidence or not? Norwegian police have strongly denied any connection between their military or WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks itself would fully lean into the angle that he had been murdered and was a sort of martyr for their cause, publishing several updates and comments on the investigation as it unfolded, describing Kamphuis’s disappearance as “strange,” and constantly highlighting the fact that his phone was activated a long way from where his belongings were found. However, the WikiLeaks angle has been rejected by some of Kamphuis’ friends, who paint it as a publicity campaign for their platform and accuse them of taking the focus away from the real reason he disappeared. Indeed, Silkie Carlo, the director of the British civil liberties NGO Big Brother Watch and close associate of Kamphuis would say:

I hate how overblown Arjen’s WikiLeaks connection is becoming. He advised many parties and journalistic organizations on info security. In this light he was also a ‘Reuters associate’. WikiLeaks might want to make this sound like it’s about them, but it is not … It makes me, and others, feel sick to my stomach to see Arjen being missing/out of contact reported like a WikiLeaks murder mystery. Kamphuis has gone off grid before. It can be good for the soul. I was worried before, and it is worrying now. But I have strong faith he will come back into the welcoming arms of his friends when he is ready, in his own time.

Other ideas include that Kamphuis disappeared voluntarily to become a spy or to go on an undercover mission for Assange, that he committed suicide, or that he was recruited into a top-secret hacker organization, but there is no real evidence for any one of these either. In the meantime, there have been numerous reported sightings of Kamphuis in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and several parts of Norway, although none of these have been confirmed. In the end, his body has never been found, no one knows what really happened to him, and police seem to be eager to sweep it all away. What was going on here? We may never know for sure. 

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