Chelsea Manning wants to take crypto back to its cyberpunk roots

Chelsea Manning thinks there is a problem with cryptography.

In a world where celebrities are coughing up more than half a million dollars a jpeg of a cartoon monkeyManning says the industry has been “unequivocally” invaded by greed.

“This is just the Gordon Gekko-ization of technology space,” she says, comparing the immense interest in cryptocurrencies and NFTs to the Wall Street movie character synonymous with greed.

She says this has caused a huge misunderstanding of cryptography by critics, moving it away from its privacy-focused roots.

“Without cryptography, my whole life story couldn’t have taken place,” she says. In 2010, Manning, then a U.S. Army soldier, used it encrypted communication services for revealing classified information to Julian Assange, which was later published on WikiLeaks.

He is now part of the Nym privacy blockchain startup as a security analyst and playing a role in hardware optimization.

Nym, based in Switzerland, is a decentralized network that uses blockchain technology to mix and match metadata packets, such as your IP address, who you talk to, and when and where.

During the interview, Manning talks to The Block in a video call from Brussels, where last week he opened the 2022 Computer, Privacy and Data Protection Conference with Nym CEO Harry Halpin and famed cryptographer Bart Preneel.

Despite children’s interest in cryptography, Manning says he has been moving away from the cryptocurrency scene for much of the 2010s due to what he considers a toxic focus on speculation that has prevailed over the industry’s potential to disrupt online surveillance.

For Manning, it was not the minimum price of the latest NFT collection, but the potential of the blockchain to make the Internet a safer place that attracted her to the industry. “My main interest [in joining the crypto sector] from the beginning it has always been the aspect of privacy, “she says.

Manning sees Nym as the successor to privacy technology such as the Tor browser and VPNs. Tor, however, has been used both as a form of access to information for people in unstable countries and by malicious actors seeking access to dark web markets such as The Silk Road. Nym says there are disincentives put in place to stop that abuse by validating and verifying the actors running the network nodes.

And while blockchain technology is often associated with transparency as opposed to privacy, Nym says only the mixnet call nodes are based on the ledger, and none of the data itself is stored in the ledger.

Invasion of privacy

Manning and colleagues at Nym hope their mixnet can act as the infrastructure on which applications can be built to create a privacy-focused internet.

In doing so, they hope to foster an alternative to surveillance capitalism, a term coined by academic Shoshana Zuboff to describe the tracking and commercialization of personal data shared online for profit by big technologies.

“The moment you share something personal with the world on social media, it’s taken without your knowledge and used in algorithms to target not only you but also the people around you,” says Nym’s strategy director Jaya Brekke.

For marginalized communities, private internet is of particular importance, Manning says. She points out that while trans and queer communities have become increasingly visible in recent years, this has also led to increased pressure and harassment that lead people to anonymous roles and spaces.

“For the safety of the community, I believe that having access to the option of private technologies at a time when we are so visible is vital and important; literally, all vulnerable people around the world can benefit from these technologies,” says Manning.

Manning disagreed with the idea that the lack of online privacy has normalized so much that the everyday user is apathetic with data protection. She cites the adoption of Signal, an encrypted messaging service, as an example of the everyday user prioritizing privacy. “In fact, I think people care. They just gave up because there is no alternative,” he said.

One who is who of the venture capitalists seems to think he is right.

In early May, the Nym project had external support, including Polychain Capital and a16z for a $ 300 million development fund to sponsor such projects. Nym raised a $ 13 million A-Series led by a16z last november.

“What I find particularly interesting about the fact that this project has the backing of VC is that other projects that are purely non-profit have almost no investment or funding that we,” she says.

Manning, however, acknowledges that the vast majority of known cryptographic projects are centralized entities focused on the financial gain of their users and not on privacy. These are the blockchain projects in which VCs have poured the most billions so far, not utility-based projects like Nym.

That’s why he understands why some have been skeptical about his involvement in blockchain technology.

Ultimately, however, he hopes to be able to change this and alter the perception of cryptographic and blockchain technology. “I want to change the culture so that cryptography is associated only with cryptocurrency,” she says.

The first step is to develop Nym from an incipient privacy startup into a viable technology with which users can interact on a daily basis without having to understand the technologies that underpin it.

Manning says he is also including an element of how his personal history is linked to cryptography in an upcoming memoir.

“I want to be an evangelist by going back to the cyberpunk roots of cryptography,” she says. “It means making cryptographic technology that really helps people with their communications, their privacy, and their ability to protect themselves.”

© 2022 The Block Crypto, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is for informational purposes only. It is not offered or intended to be used as legal, tax, investment, financial or other advice.

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