Chelsea Manning on the Sad State of Online Privacy

Chelsea Manning warned us.

Over four years ago, the whistle-blower penned an op-ed for The New York Times titled, “This Is the Dystopia You Signed Up For,” observing that “virtually everything we do causes us to bleed digital information, putting us at the mercy of invisible algorithms that threaten to consume our freedom.”

Did people listen? Yes and no.

“Privacy has been in a weird spot lately,” Manning told me on a recent Zoom call. She sounded almost exasperated by society’s indifference to privacy. Many of us heard the warnings, read stories about data abuse … and simply shrugged.

This article is part of CoinDesk’s Privacy Week series.

“The individual’s assertion towards their own privacy has been culturally beaten out of them,” said Manning. She says the average person now thinks, “I’m just going to hand over everything and sign over everything, and then, if I feel like I’m violated, I’ll complain about it. But until I’m aware of it, I’m going to be oblivious.”

Calling that mindset a “major problem,” Manning is trying to fix it. Or, more accurately, if she can’t fix the attitude itself – she’s a realist and knows it’s a “cultural problem” – she can try and improve the infrastructure.

Taking on this problem started in prison. While serving her sentence for leaking documents to WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange (a sentence later commuted by U.S. President Barack Obama), Manning began hatching a plan,using pen and paper, for a blockchain-enabled way to protect online privacy. That work led her to work at Nym, a blockchain startup, whose stated mission is to “establish privacy as a default for online communications” by building it into the internet’s infrastructure. In August she started as a security consultant for Nym; now she’s joining full time.

She views the work as urgent, necessary and even critical to our well-being.

“The lack of privacy has health impacts on people. I really believe this,” said Manning. “Once you start to no longer have any privacy, and you’ve essentially become a prisoner to this sort of tech dystopia, your health and your physical and mental health will deteriorate.”

So for the sake of your own health, here’s Chelsea Manning on the current state of online privacy, why all of us are at risk of being “commodified” and how she manages the paradox of being a celebrity who craves privacy. (Wearing masks during a pandemic helps.)

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Society’s relationship with privacy

What do you see as the main risks, downsides and consequences of people sort of “giving up” on online privacy?

I think the biggest risk is that people become so commodified. Everything becomes a microtransaction. I see this on Twitch, for instance, where the main ways that you engage with people are through microtransactions. You have to purchase emotes [Twitch’s emoticons] if you want to send people emotes. That’s a microtransaction. You can gift people subscriptions. So as things and people become more and more commodified in this way, they’re becoming more alienated in their daily life. This is one of the reasons why people are feeling less and less fulfilled as they engage more and more with the electronic world.

What’s your biggest concern right now?

It’s the TikTok-ization of the world. Every single second that you’re on TikTok, every single interaction that you have is measured down to the microsecond. That’s how the algorithm gets fed. You’re bombarded with information constantly, and you’re measured on how you interact with that content, at every microsecond. That is a major, major concern that I have. Everything becomes an interaction down to the microsecond.

Would you say this problem has gotten better or worse in the last few years?

It’s gotten worse. It’s gotten worse mostly due to people having given up on their privacy. Or they’ve assumed that they’re protected by law somehow, when they’re not.

It does seem like there was a moment, with the backlash against tech companies, where people seemed more concerned.

Yeah, I think people are concerned. I think people are educated and understand this. But I also think that people have mostly decided that “Oh, somebody is going to fix this” or, “I’m sure somebody’s looking into that,” when the opposite is the case. Nobody is really focused on this. For me, it’s cultural. The biggest concern I have in the privacy realm is that people know they’re being tracked, they know they’re being surveilled and they’re just like, “Well, what can I do, really?” And I think that’s a cultural issue.

What are some ways the internet needs to change in order to better respect privacy and to fix this problem?

It’s infrastructure. You have to build privacy into the infrastructure. I’ve been saying this for years. We need to build those privacy mechanisms into [the infrastructure] of those big ad-revenue generating companies – like the whole concept of nudging, where you’re essentially trying to nudge people to make sure that the [privacy settings] are clicked. We need to implement that.

Do you mean an opt-in for privacy? Can you elaborate a bit?

From an engineering perspective, security needs to be built in at the infrastructure level. You need to encrypt the stuff at the hardware level. You need to encrypt everything automatically. You need to have everything checked ahead of time.

I’m not so much an Apple fan as I am an Apple crypto-security fan, as iPhones are pretty opt-in. They opt you in first and all of the security stuff is turned on. It’s very robust, and it’s all hardware-level. I think that the iPhone is a very good example of a piece of technology that takes this approach of built-in privacy. And moving into the 2030s and 2040s, we need to start looking at new infrastructure standards, where we are essentially Tor-ifying everything by default.

Privacy and public policy

How about at a policy level? What do you want to see happen?

I have zero hope for stuff at a policy level. This is a cultural issue; I don’t think this is a legal thing because the regulatory infrastructure, everywhere, has been gutted. GDPR [Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation] was a leapfrog, and it really solidified a lot of stuff, but it has been slowly chipped away by Silicon Valley.

How would you grade the Biden Administration, so far, on its approach to tackling the issue of privacy?

Non-existent. Where have they been? I’m not aware of the Biden Administration taking solid positions anywhere. It’s very striking. What I find striking about the Biden Administration is the sheer silence on a lot of topics. You know, I’m aware of lobbying ongoing, and I’m aware of statements the Biden Administration has made, but I haven’t seen a lot.

Improving blockchain privacy

Let’s talk about your work at Nym. What do you see as the overall mission?

Well, the slogan is, “Privacy for everyone.” Privacy for everyone by default. This is me speaking, not Nym, but we cannot depend on people to demand their own privacy. We have to sell privacy to people. I’m learning this myself. We have to tell people, “Privacy is good. You want it.” We have to sell privacy to people – just like VPNs, because [virtual private networks] have done a good job of making themselves salable to people, and I think that’s good.

Good point. It’s almost like the VPN commercials have weaponized fear, right?

Yes.

What else can you say about your goals for the Nym infrastructure?

I want the Nym infrastructure to be made as efficient and as fast and as seamless and as integrated as possible.

Transactions on the network need to happen faster, and they need to happen as synchronically as possible. It’s a hard sell, but it also lines up with the realm of the rest of blockchain and cryptocurrency, because if we can speed up transaction speeds on the network that will speed up transaction speeds at a hardware level. I’m hoping that Nym can solve the proof-of-stake transaction calculation problem at the hardware efficiency level. I think that these are large-scale issues. I think that they’re tackleable issues.

Can you talk about why that matters?

One of my criticisms of cryptocurrency is the fact that we’re essentially commodifying tokens and things for systems that are just using gigawatts every second. These calculations are very inefficient. These ASICs are optimized for speed, but they’re not optimized for energy efficiency. With the Nym network being a much cheaper network to maintain, we can focus on speed. And we can focus on power efficiency. And we can focus on decentralization.

While we may not be investing in the hardware itself, we can certainly set standards and protocols for having things on the network be as energy efficient as possible, to be as quick as possible. We can tell people, “Hey, here’s a security thing, but it’s also seamless.” It feels like any other tool that you use. It doesn’t feel wonky. It doesn’t feel weird, it doesn’t feel like a plugin, it doesn’t feel like you have to learn an entire new language in order to use it.

The life of Chelsea Manning

Last question: It almost seems like you’re now forced to live with a paradox in that you are a fierce advocate for privacy but you are also a very famous person. How do you grapple with that?

It doesn’t click in my brain. It just doesn’t register. It’s like I don’t understand it. I go to the pharmacy and people come up to me and they’re, like, “Hey, I know you.” And I’m wearing a mask. We’re in a pandemic. I don’t feel as famous as I am, but I have to concede that I am probably permanently famous. It’s hard, because I do care about privacy. I think I’ve found a balance, where I have the luxury of sort of blending in. It’s not the same as it is for the average person. [Most] people can blend in by default and I have to seek it.

What are your tricks for blending in? Not to dox you, but how do you pull it off?

I just act normal. I just go do my normal stuff but whenever we started to unmask a little bit, I was like, “Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.” Some things are just never going to be the same. I’m not going to be able to walk down the street in lower Manhattan without being hassled for a selfie. It’s just not going to happen. But I’ve been able to find this balance, and I feel okay with it.

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