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 seven years in jail meant missing seven 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.

96 thoughts on “HOPE XII: Chelsea Manning

  1. Even with no political agenda whatsoever, one should recognize the value of extreme case testing in any environment. I’m glad Hackaday recognizes this and is willing to look at Manning’s engagement in the opsec community.

    1. I hope we still can criticize ANY politician’s positions and declarations, or those practising that narrow minded censorship, (not so different than McCarthyism’s tactics in spirit) are a dangerous threat to democraty, whatever how they may think of themselves as progressists.

      1. Our “censorship” isn’t ideologically motivated. We delete comments that contain personal attacks and vulgar language. If you want to say something here, you’re going to have to say it nicely. That’s all.

        We will often delete political comments from normal “hacks” posts, because we want to keep stuff on topic, but that obviously doesn’t apply here.

        To the tiny minority of people posting objectionable material: you should know better than this. We have a lot of very smart and involved readers here. If you want to talk politics, or better policy, bring the facts. You won’t win anyone over on Hackaday with insults.

        Because of the way WordPress works, replies to any of the deleted posts also get deleted — apologies to anyone who posted something reasonable that got caught in the crossfire. A corollary: don’t respond to offensive comments. Instead, start your own comment thread and keep it clean.

  2. “She believes we still need these tools to communicate, but that maybe we should stop algorithmically picking what people should see in their feed.”

    or, maybe, just maybe, people should stop using “tools” that are just honeytraps run by ad companies designed to look like communication tools, where the ad companies decide with their ad algorithm what people should see in their feed.

    maybe.

  3. Iraq War was the most PR stage managed war in human history. Although US army was collecting more data and statistics than ever, they refused to ever release an estimate of body count or war crimes despite incidents like Abu Gharab becoming public. They refused independent news journalists from the west that were not “embedded” (aka pentagon had editorial control) from reporting from the ground. Anyone publicly questioning the war was akin to a devil.

    What Manning did was reveal the truth of a modern war, truth in the form of historical sources, documents that normally would be locked away until we are all long dead. your grown grandkids get to hear the truth of the situation in a 2 min segment in the news while nursing a new years hangover in 2076. and some graduate student gets to write another version of that paper about the atrocities of that war from near a hundred years ago.

    Arguably, the world is even more fucked up now than when Manning went to prison, and humans connection with technology plays a huge part in that. Now more than ever, as citizens, it’s our duty to seek out the objective truth of our world, our society, and shove it in the faces of those who seek to hide crimes, corruption, or national embarrassment from view using national security as an excuse.

    Being a patriot is more than hoisting a flag in your yard and cheering for the local sports team, it is to sacrifice your own ass to keep others free an informed if the truth. Chelsea Manning made an extremely difficult decision, but as time goes by I can’t help but think it was the right one. As free people we need to face the often ugly truth in order to make better informed decisions in the poling booth. Without access to the objective truth, democracy cannot sustain freedom for future generations.

        1. [sigh] “Luckily, the US is not a democracy”;respectfully that’s a good example of what can be wrong with rote education. While it’s true that the land owner and merchants that authored the US Constitution wanted the new government to be seen as a republic, they ended up creating an effective democracy. We, the USA used the democratic process to select who will conduct the business of the republic, this began with the . Those selected to conduct the business of the republic use to democratic process as well. The democratic process is pervasive throughout the USA where a governance model is needed. All gad with those who drafted and ratified the US Constitution.

          1. That was supposed to be “even Democrates knew” as in a Greek proper name. The Athenians certainly knew. And no. The USA isn’t a democracy. For example, some cities have elected mayors, some have city managers hired by a council. The US is a republic of states with a system based on federalism, Not long ago, in some states Senators were selected by the governor or the state legislature (As they should be. There is no need for two houses from popular votes.) Every step towards true democracy weakens local control and local influence on the bigger decision.

          2. The U.S. is, and always has been, a Representative Republic. I have no idea what “history” books you might be reading but, I suggest you get better ones. The fact that the U.S. is not a democracy is one of the main reasons it survives to this day. They used to tech this in grade school back in the 1060’s when I attended but, evidently not any more.

    1. define “objective truth”. It´s is a problem in itself. There are as much truth as people, unless they same the exact same beliefs. Algorithmically shaping humanity will doubtfully raise morals, because we are not able to define morals that can apply to anybody. Filters applied to social networks are a double edge sword: they can reinforce auto-censorship behaviors, reinforce copy-pasted behaviors, but also exacerbates tensions. And can´t apply to anybody.

      Take Gustave Courbet´s “Origin of the World” famous painting censored by Facebook for … nudity.
      It´s a typical example how gross and raw and insensible technology ad technological can be, when it´s applied to morals.
      There is no technology that can account for all cultural differences in the world, and if it ever exists, it would freeze those differences into a rigid, grimacing caricature.

      You just can´t define humanity with any amount of AI or big data, you can just sense it. And by sensing it, you can freeze it in a state, Like Schödinger´s cat. Or you can even morph part of it into the shape you want, like a voter in 2016.

      That raises the question; in what shape do we globally want do morph humanity? because there will be no other choice than to morph it.

      And who will do that? Who has authority to define what is truth, what is lies, what is good and what is wrong ?

      governments ? they are not working for the happiness of their population
      social networks ? they are private, culturally tainted, and money oriented

      This is where the “global village” idea from the 90s took us. Where do we want to go next ?

      1. >>define “objective truth”. It´s is a problem in itself.

        Spoken like a true spin doctor.
        Objective truth is the state of the world around you. We may disagree on what, if anything, to do with that truth but facts are facts regardless of your morality or political leanings.

      2. Objective truth is the reality around you. Seeing it clearly and responding to it rationally is the goal of disciplines like Cognitive Reconstruction and Buddhism, as well as the fundamental branch of science called physics (and the philosophy of science). Experiment is the arbiter of truth.

      3. “define “objective truth”. It´s is a problem in itself.”

        Objective truth exists, it’s the thing that happened in reality when there was nobody there to record it, it’s the thing that politicians lie about to suit their agendas. As citizens it’s our duty to seek out the truth and not simply believe what we are told verbatum by the team we like.

        Harold Pinters Nobel speech ‘Art Truth and Politics’ tore the justification for the Iraq War to pieces while addressing this duty of the citizen to be informed of objective truth in a world of lies.

        Larry Lessig’s campeign to get money out of US election process highlighted another weakness in our democracy. if it’s legal to buy elections (Citizens United ruling) then our society is vulnerable to influence by outside sources through money laundering and liquid wealth.

        Palmer Luckey of VR headset fame, also used his wealth to influence the 2016 election through “shitposting” on social media. As a facebook senior employee it’s ironic that he was publically promoting what Zuckerberg found himself infront of a senate commettee for.

        As individual citizens it’s our (perhaps difficult) duty to cut through the bullshit and find the truth, we way not be in the position of Manning and be granted access to truth in bulk, but we do have access to the truth of our own lives, in our own communities, jobs, and areas of experteese. I think most people here are capable of understand how social media can be attacked and manipulated by bots to make extreme opinions seem more popular than they are in reality. We have a duty to bring this truth to the attention of the public and to do something about it.

        1. If you pop a lead on a trace and see a dirty binary signal, we don’t freak out because of the noise, We work with it, try to clean it up so that in the retransmission, or in reading it we are faithful to the original. I wonder if there isn’t a place for the same in social and political realms. I agree with frustration in people who do not have the skills to read the people through the noise or have the skill but then are not faithful to the signal they are reading. Perhaps our duty is to help clean up the signal, separate it from the noise, and present it clearly to people. Both authorities and the represented would benefit from clarity on when the people are well represented and when they are being misrepresented.

  4. “maybe we should stop algorithmically picking what people should see in their feed” – YES!

    The bane of my online “social” interactions is trying to find sites that give me:
    * everything from everyone I follow/subscribe/friend/link
    * give it to me in chronological order
    * remember where I left off so I can continue later (across multiple devices)
    * allow me to bookmark interesting posts for later reading without implying some narcissistic feeding acknowledgement.

    1. Society is a system like any other, it can and is being hacked. in order to defend any system from attack it’s useful to understand the system in detail and how it is being exploited. HAD is no stranger to discussions of soft hacking like Social Engineering, Manning talking at HOPE, one of the biggest hacker confrences on the calandar is relivant.

      Not every article on HAD floats my boat, I’m not crazy about ARM hacks for example, I just skip to the next article. I never felt the need to post a comment demanding that all ARM content be removed to accomodate my tastes or ideals.

    2. +1
      I come to HAD to get away from all the political BS out there and relax and enjoy creative and interesting content. If these types of articles which have not place on HAD and all the political comments start showing up, I may go elsewhere.
      Can we not have ONE PLACE on the internet where we can get away from all this political crap and enjoy being creative and clever.

    3. What does this story have to do with Hackaday at all? Keep the political blather to the sites that already so that stuff please. There is no tech angle here. You have a felon that stole a bunch of classified documents and there was not even hacking involved in that.

  5. I wonder if someone “leaked” the censored comments in this thread would they be held in as high regard as the current crop of traitors.

    If your entrusted with sensitive information and you leak it. That’s a very reckless act.

    Yes, Governments do lots of bad shit but one person letting the cat out of the bag because they think it’s a good idea is potentially even worse.

    1. Rather hide evidence of warcrimes, life a ignorant blissful life and hope in 100 years, when all involved people are long dead, the crimes are admitted.

  6. Added a similar comment to some of those here about the questionable substance of this article (in a way more polite way) and had the post removed… It’s a civil web site so it’s not censorship. However it’s very disappointing.

    I’m very much against the over-classification of material I believe every citizen has a right to access. Transparency is a good thing. But the way those like Snowden and Manning are heralded is extreme.

        1. Freedom of speech applies does not apply to private entities. We (Alan, C, myself, others) know that HaD can delete what ever comments they like, but we are saying we don’t like it and it seems to fly in the face of what HaD seems to stand for. You missed the point that: we know they are within their right, but we don’t like it, and we are making it known that we don’t like it.

          1. Correct, your Freedom of Speech only applies to the Government limiting your speech. Not the entities that own websites or even the news media. I love it when people cite the Bill of Rights without even knowing that it only prevents the Government from violating those rights.

  7. No real hack here. That was a waste of time and a devaluation of the hackaday.com website just to pander to a certain lawless traitorous extortive subculture. I now think less of this site.

    1. it did seem a very odd article for this web site.. And an odd choice for the conference as well. I can’t see how it has anything to do with either…

      1. Why Manning and HOPE? She was presenting there among friends. The HOPE community has been supportive of Manning since the very beginning. A large part of the HOPE ethos is about freedom of information, often regardless of the methods of freeing it. This can obviously run into trouble with the law.

        But Hackaday doesn’t run any of the conferences we report on. We’re just attending and reporting. You don’t accuse your local paper of homicide when they write up local murders, right? And you certainly don’t think that is a sign that they agree with murder as a drug-world business tactic? It was the big keynote speech at an important hacker con.

    2. There is. It´s like setting a social engineering fire to asset the efficiency of the fireproof protection.
      And demonstrates how divided, divided, divided U.S. is.

      Please don´t export your inner conflict by world on fire.

    1. Before? We’ve been covering HOPE since at least 2008.

      Are you saying that you don’t like to read reporting from hacker cons in general? If so, you certainly won’t like to see the keynote from the last HOPE: https://hackaday.com/2016/07/25/cory-doctorow-rails-against-technological-nihilism-wants-you-to-have-hope/

      We go to DEFCON, CCC, Vintage Computer Festivals, RepRap Festivals, and any hacker-related camps, parties, or boat trips we can. And then we write it up. Sorry about that.

  8. Many years of fond HaD reading, I have noticed a slant before, in some articles and comments. This is my last visit. This article has no place here… well unless the objective was to politicize a tech hobby site frequented by persons across the globe.
    This did not work for ESPN, and it will not work well here.
    And I do not care one iota about sexual this or that, the poor thing can decide to be a raccoon for all I care, but to break it down to its core, this article glorifies a criminal, and treasonous criminal behavior.

  9. So saying this article does not meet Hackaday’s publishing guidelines is enough to get my comments removed? I’ll say it again. This article has nothing to do with creating, modifying or hacking hardware or software.

  10. As a resident of Maryland I can tell you that Manning would never get a vote from me.

    I had to drive by Fort Meade during protests while Manning was being charged, tried and convicted.

    Nothing gave that soldier the right to release classified information, nothing. The gender confusion argument that the defense attempted to point out difficulty in fitting in to the military regiment is dog’s bollocks.

    That Chelsea is becoming the poster child for the transgender community should be a slap in the face to every person who genuinely deals with this difficult decision and doesn’t become an unreliable person in the process.

    Should still be in prison. Should not receive veteran’s benefits. Should not be getting the treatments to become her true self on the taxpayer dime. A number or people who did their job and didn’t leak information are hungry in the street and have problems that the VA completely underserves while a traitor gets gender reassignment treatment because they are some sort of symbol.

    Do the world a favor Chelsea. Get your treatments and vanish from the public eye. Your 15 minutes were over long ago.

    1. She was upholding her oath to defend against enemies both foreign and domestic.

      Whatever you think of her politics, denying healthcare is inhumane. If she was still in prison, as you say she should, then she would be getting that treatment anyway.

      1. Military court martial saw it differently. You can defend against enemies foreign and domestic, but if you have clearance you don’t take that information to WikiLeaks! You deal with that in house and if seeing that information troubles you, ask for reassignment.

        The VA doesn’t seem to have an issue denying mental healthcare to the vets returning from the battlefield with PTSD who eventually commit suicide. Since the media is focused on someone who DIDN’T follow orders and took matters into their own hands, the VA makes sure she gets whatever she needs. You get found guilty of espionage and imprisoned, with a dishonorable discharge you should have to fend for yourself.

        I don’t, and will never, see this person as a hero of any type.

    2. > Nothing gave that soldier the right to release classified information, nothing.
      So, you don’t even question the legitimacy of the war?

      > A number or people who did their job and didn’t leak information are hungry in the street and have problems that the VA completely underserves while a traitor gets gender reassignment treatment because they are some sort of symbol.

      Poor of them, should not have been part of an illegal, illegitimate war that helped no one but the private interests of olygarchs and the richest ones. They could have simply refused to become part of it, and would have been protected by international law. They could have done the same Manning did, or even more.

      By being part instead of denouncing it, they became war criminals. They were betrayed by their own government and people. You have to wonder why…

  11. I’ve read HaD for a long time and took the time to read the article in its entirety. As written, I don’t see why the article is on HaD. Were it to focus on the acts leading up to Manning’s conviction, maybe its on brand, but the author explicitly veers from the infosec/OPSEC angle HaD readers might care about.

    Unfortunately it reads as purely a fluff piece on someone obviously controversial in 2 realms HaD doesnt normally go – politics and gender. I didn’t see any John McAfee profile pieces pop up here when was running for president, so why now and why Manning?

  12. She dumped hundreds of thousands of files indiscriminately to foreign powers. Some of those files exposed wrongdoing by America. The vast majority of them exposed good people to danger and undermined our national security. There are ways to expose wrongdoing without putting good people in harm’s way. She is not a whistle blower. She is a traitor who should still be rotting in prison for betraying the trust we put in her.

  13. if i were an analytics bot i would say that chelsea manning is a very popular among hackaday readers, given how this article has over 70 comments while the previous one didn’t even reach 20!

        1. maybe don’t be crummy with your posts

          HAD staff has the right to policy their article comments, that’s not censorship

          censorship would be the government stopping you from writing about your complaints literally anywhere else

          come on folks, there’s an XKCD about this

    1. I think they’re trying to train the comments to be civil. We’ve had a lot of firearm articles in recent history and the comments have simmered down a LOT. Hopefully we can get the same civility on other topics like this one.

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