HOPE XII: Chelsea Manning

Saturday’s talk schedule at the HOPE conference was centered around one thing: the on-stage interview with Chelsea Manning. Not only was a two-hour session blocked out (almost every other talk has been one hour) but all three stages were reserved with live telecast between the three rooms.

I was lucky enough to get a seat very close to the stage in the main hall. The room was packed front to back. Even the standing room — mapped out on the carpet in tape and closely policed by conference “fire marshals” — was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. The audience was alive with energy, and I think everyone lucky enough to be here today shares my feeling that moments like these tie our community together and help us all focus on what is important in life, as individuals and as a society.

Chelsea was very recently released from prison. So recently, that the last time this conference was held back in 2016, she and her close circle of friends were under the impression that she was very far from the end of her sentence. One such friend, Yan Zhu, joined Chelsea on stage in a comfortable armchair-setting to guide the interview.

Chelsea Manning was sentenced to serve 35 years in Leavenworth maximum-security prison, having been convicted in 2013 of violating the Espionage Act. This talk (and the article I’m writing now) was not about the events leading up to that conviction, but rather about Chelsea’s life since being released, with a bit of background on the experience of being incarcerated. Her early release came as the result of a commutation of sentence by President Barack Obama that returned her freedom just over one year ago.

Checking Back Into Society

Serving eight years in jail meant missing eight years of technological evolution. I think it’s safe to say everyone reading this article possesses far above average skills when it comes to computers, the internet, and electronics. How much of a mountain is it to climb to get back up to speed with all that you’d missed?

One of the most interesting anecdotes on this readjustment period is Chelsea’s story about getting a computer into her hands for the first time again. Her lawyers had offered to buy her one. That sounds easy enough, but for anyone serious about infosec, and especially those who are likely to be targets of surveillance, you can’t just order a laptop from an online retailer. She leaned on her support structure to help her acquire a secure machine. (I’d actually like to dig deeper into that topic so keep your eye on Hackaday for future articles on secure sourcing.)

Hardware in hand, she started whittling away at the topics necessary to get back into the now. Among these, getting up to speed on virtual machine platforms, advances in network security, new warning systems, and the requisite mailing lists to stay on top of the latest research were on her short list. She mentioned that she thinks a lot of what once were tedious tasks have been tamped down through automation.

All of this, however, is the small part of her readjustment. When Chelsea entered prison she was only 22 years old. She had never lived by herself, and just learning how to find and rent an apartment was a big adjustment. Prison social dynamics do not jive with life on the outside and her discussion took the audience through what it has been like making the mental pivot to rejoin society.

Prisoner Advocacy

Yan Zhu asked if Chelsea had considered becoming a community organizer. Chelsea has already been working in that area as a prisoner advocate. She spends time writing to prisoners and convincing others to do the same. There are at least 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. Chelsea mentioned that we have seen much activism around police violence. She believes that most people assume that those in prison are violent and scary people, but that her experience was that “the most violent and scary people I met in prison were the prison guards.”

She goes on to say that the people in jails and prisons are part of our communities and we should treat them as such; that we need to stop writing people off. This a powerful message, and she concedes that it’s really hard to do this. Even the most supportive of people struggle to keep a torch lit year in and year for prisoners whom they very infrequently see because of the separation between inside and outside worlds.

Senate Candidacy

This year, Chelsea Manning ran in the US Senate primary in Maryland against an incumbent Senator. The primary was in June and she did not win, but was interesting to hear of her experiences during the campaign. It makes me wonder about the number of times people from the infosec community have run for national office?

The discussion dipped into the topic of social media and its role in politics. Chelsea posits that a bulk of the problem goes back to algorithms, that machine learning has picked up on the fact that we’re now being hyper-stimulated. She described a feedback loop that automatically promotes content that is making people angry or upset. The algorithms encourage this because it results in more content — more activity from users. She attributed this to a “little meme generating weakness in our brain”.

Her solution is not to ban social media. She believes we still need these tools to communicate, but that maybe we should stop algorithmically picking what people should see in their feed. She also advocates that we read books. Reading about other things that are going on with which we’re not familiar, exposing ourselves to new ideas and new ways of thinking, and learning about new cultures and new social norms is a time-tested way to build society.

A Fascinating Perspective

I found myself wondering why so many people in this enormous audience felt so connected to this person on stage. I myself felt it quite strongly. Thinking back to the very beginning of the talk helped me understand this a little more.

Part of the early discussion centered upon any advice Chelsea had for engineers. Because of the information systems that are pervasive throughout our world, the actions of one person can have great ramifications. Chelsea Manning’s actions effected the lives of many people, herself included. No matter what you think about those actions, I believe we can all empathize with the reality that many people are working in roles where their actions and decisions can have great consequences.

She stresses that we’re not just making tools — these things have direct impact on huge parts of the population. Large data sets and machine learning are giving rise to predictive analysis. If applied incorrectly, this has the ability to destroy lives. Could your actions deny millions of people access to their livelihood, or to their rights? Developing software that has unintended consequences is often because the ramifications weren’t thought out ahead of time. These are difficult questions that Chelsea put forth, but it is imperative that technological advancement doesn’t outpace the rate at which we find answers to them.