U.S. President Donald Trump calls her a traitor, but to many people Chelsea Manning is a classic hero of conscience.
Speaking recently at the annual C2 Montreal business and tech conference, the whistleblower and trans-rights activist had lots to say about the ethics of technology in an era of mass surveillance, the need for data privacy, and activism in general.
“Everything has gotten worse,” she told her audience. “Especially in the United States. The world that I feared in 2010 would exist… has really played out and accelerated in its development while I was in prison.”
C2 Montreal organizers billed Manning's presentation at the non-profit organization's conference as her first international speaking engagement since her release from prison about a year ago, after serving seven years for violating the Espionage Act.
In response to what she saw as massive, systemic human rights violations when she served as an intelligence officer in the Iraq War, Manning downloaded more than 700,000 documents, including a video of an American helicopter gunning down civilians and two Reuters reporters, and was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security military jail. It was the longest sentence for whistle-blowing in U.S. history. Her sentence was commuted by former President Barack Obama.
Manning said she worries about the dangers of misusing technology. They are dangers, she said, which developers, programmers, and computer scientists working on artificial intelligence and machine learning may not focus on as they work to meet deadlines.
The need for increased data privacy
“So many decisions about technology are made without our consent,” she said. “We need to better understand the ethical constraints and moral implications of the technology we’re using.”
She warned that devices may be used against people. “They work for the manufacturers, they work for the advertisers. They are waiting to be compromised if we’re not careful. Your web history can and will be used against you. Not just by the government, but by the advertising industry. […] “When you’re using an app that’s free, you need to ask yourself if it’s really free.”
Manning cited an example of how technology created for one purpose can be misused later. When she was working on algorithms for a marketing company in the mid-2000's they were used to target repeat customers. “The very same algorithms were used in Iraq years later to target people for death, to target people to catch and kill.”
She said technological developers may be unaware of the potential misuse of the products and tools they work on. “One technology company works on video, another works on self-flying drones and another one is a defense contractor that works on weapons. It’s not the individual technologies, but how they are packaged and built, and you can end up with self-flying death planes,” she said.
“Everything has gotten worse,” she told her audience. “Especially in the United States. The world that I feared in 2010 would exist… has really played out and accelerated in its development while I was in prison.” #C2M2018 @xychelsea
She expressed concern that social media sites and their users, as well as government, do not take data privacy seriously enough.
“We’ve been complacent,” she said. “We know our data is potentially misused and our devices can be compromised. We need to take personal responsibility and we also need to do something collectively.”
Technological companies should make ethical evaluations as well as technical ones, she said, advocating the development of a technology code of ethics. She cited the recent Toronto Declaration, which protects rights to equality and non-discrimination in machine learning systems and holds states and companies accountable for their failure to do so.
Creeping state authoritarianism
Manning said she is shocked by the militarization of the U.S. police force. "I’ve been to an occupied state and marginalized communities are currently policed like that in the States. It looks like a U.S. military occupation.”
Last September, Manning was refused entry to Canada at the U.S. border because of her criminal record for violating the Espionage Act. During her appearance at C2, she called Canada's border "toxic" after revealing that she was detained for 10 hours and needs a temporary resident permit to enter the country now.
But Manning remains optimistic, saying people have the power to aggressively push back against an authoritarian state. “We can all do things -- big things, small things… Every single one of us has political agency. Politics is more than just going to the ballot box or going to a protest. It’s the things that we do in our daily lives that have the power to change things. Everything we do every day has a political impact, and not doing something can also have a political impact.”
Actively supporting activists
In January 2018, she surprised many by announcing her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate election in her home state of Maryland and plans to campaign on a platform that includes dismantling the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration and customs enforcement agency, eliminating national borders, providing universal healthcare and basic income.
Known as Bradley Manning at the time of her arrest, she came out as transgender while in prison. After the U.S. Department of Defense initially refused a request for gender dysphoria treatment, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on her behalf in 2014 and, in 2016, Manning staged a hunger strike. Ten days later, she became the first person to receive hormone therapy in a military prison. She is now a vocal activist for trans, gender, LGBTQ, and inmates’ rights, as well as for the ethical use of technology. She said that the messages she received while she was incarcerated served as moral support and believes that activists should be encouraged.
“Supporting front-line activists is very important to me. I can’t imagine doing anything else," she said during an on-stage Montreal interview.
Asked by her interviewer why she recently showed up in support of the 56 J20 protesters facing charges for protesting Trump during his inauguration, Manning didn’t hesitate.
“Well, people showed up for me, didn't they?”