Whistleblower Chelsea Manning was released from prison less than a year ago, after being arrested in 2010 for leaking military secrets. Since then, Manning has filed to run for the US Senate in Maryland, campaigning on a platform of prison abolition, healthcare expansion, and open immigration. She’s also a critic of digital surveillance. At SXSW this week, she condemned the way that ubiquitous data collection and powerful algorithms have expanded into more parts of American life, asking software developers to take more responsibility for the unintended consequences of their work.
We met with Manning yesterday at SXSW to ask more about her views on the current state of hacking, online hate policing, and net neutrality — and why we shouldn’t lose sight of issues like privacy whenever a new crisis hits.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You mentioned that people should be self-aware about the data they’re giving up to platforms and companies. How can people who are already more self-aware, like in the crypto or software development community, help people who aren’t as aware of these problems?
Have conversations with people! Discuss these things. Ask questions. Don’t think that you don’t have a responsibility to reach out. You can do things in your own capacity every day to try to raise awareness.
And awareness isn’t even really the word. People know that these are issues. They’re just ignoring it because there’s no incentive for them to do anything, so the incentive has to come from within.
How has the crypto and hacking community changed since 2010?
“I would love to see Facebook and Google ... taken down a couple pegs.”
I would say it’s gotten bigger, but it’s a lot more factionalized than it was before. The notion of celebrity crypto people was alien to the community seven years ago, and now there’s obviously some bigger names. There have also been scandals, you know — a lot of sexual assault being called out among certain figures, rightly so. So I think it’s becoming a bigger community, but it’s also a more self-aware and much more socially aware community. It’s not just about technology anymore, it’s also about who we are, who do we include. And it hasn’t been easy and simple and straightforward, but I think there’s a lot of good things happening in the crypto community.
And there’s a lot of alternatives now. This couple of clubs and conventions used to be the main points, but I think it’s becoming more decentralized. Within the last three years in particular it’s been a much more decentralized movement; more people are creating their own, more local groups and organizations, and also people are just working on projects on their own or with other groups.
So it’s not as as siloed as it used to be.
To what extent should we rely on platforms like Facebook and Google to be involved in the fight against online hate?
We can’t rely on them. Obviously they’re not doing anything about it. Honestly, the platforms have too much power in this regard. I would love to see Facebook and Google and these big, huge institutionalized structures now taken down a couple pegs in terms of their power. There should be more community support; we should have more influence.
I think that this sort of centralization of these unaccountable institutions — maybe we need to find alternative places. But it’s really hard to do when it’s really the backbone infrastructure of the industry.
If a company like Google does something like revoke The Daily Stormer’s domain, is that good because The Daily Stormer’s down, or bad because we’re giving Google a lot of power to control what happens online?
That’s an excellent question, and I don’t know the answer. Obviously the end result is very good and I support that, but the methods are not reliable. They could have just decided ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ It’s arbitrary, and whatever they decide to do is completely independent of what’s the right thing to do.
How do you feel about the net neutrality debate right now? It’s one of the few internet issues that really sticks in the public eye.
“We can create ad-hoc networks and think about alternative ways of doing the internet.”
It’s been around for a while; I remember having discussions about it back in 2005. I don’t want to lionize the FCC — it shouldn’t have been held in the FCC, because now, but for a change in administration... We can’t depend on a government agency that regulates seven words on television and radio, and that is still trying to grapple with the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. This is a government agency that has no teeth, has no ability to deal with this problem.
And I find that trying to expect the FCC to fix this problem, or any problem... The phone costs for prisoners is now regulated by the FCC, and that’s always changing. The FCC has a power that affects millions of prisoners across the country, which, that’s an enormous amount of power that they have, that’s arbitrary and changes all the time. So I think that depending on the FCC for this kind of thing is very problematic.
Is the solution Congress passing a law?
I think we need to think about alternative structures. Maybe depending on these centralized institutions to regulate the internet is the problem. Maybe we need a more decentralized ad-hoc internet where ISPs are never given the opportunity to have these powers in the first place.
What’s the best way to start laying the groundwork for that?
Start talking about it? Unless we’re talking about it, we can’t build it. So that’s a start. You can already create ad-hoc networks. They’re not ideal, but the technology exists, the software exists. We can create ad-hoc networks and think about alternative ways of doing the internet. I’ve even proposed that we create a new internet standard — but creating a new standard doesn’t always solve anything.
What about convincing people who aren’t already hardcore privacy advocates, and might be more interested in convenience, to get involved?
Make it easy. Make it fun. Especially, I look to Egypt in 2011, where they used ad-hoc internet to communicate among each other because the internet got shut down. So in a situation like that, the demand arose and technology was able to meet it. I mean, Signal is easy to use. There are solutions to this.
Are there good examples of people successfully making these decentralized structures?
“It’s the same fire, it’s just spreading to different areas.”
Not necessarily in the United States, but in African countries, in parts of the Middle East, in parts of Eastern Europe, ad-hoc networks are relatively common. I’m not sure about Asia, but I’m sure that there are certain niche markets for this kind of thing.
Right, and some mesh and municipal networks in the US.
Yes, but again, depending on a centralized institution to provide this can cause problems.
How do you keep focus on something that doesn’t seem like a huge direct crisis, like surveillance, when everything else in the world feels like a disaster?
They’re all part of the same crisis. It’s the same fire, it’s just spreading to different areas now. We have to stop the flow of oxygen to the fire because we just keep feeding it and feeding it and feeding it. Like, not dealing with the surveillance apparatus is what’s allowing this kind of environment to fester, and not dealing with the national security apparatus as a whole, or the prison-industrial complex — these problems don’t exist without these institutions. There can be no fear-oriented fascist rise to power without these systemic problems that we have. One is a prerequisite to the other.