Chelsea Manning grew interested in Bitcoin when the project was still in its infancy but not because of users’ disruptive ambitions or any purported payment networks.
The American activist and whistleblower, who sent classified information to Wikileaks in 2010 regarding the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, said Bitcoin appealed to her passion for cryptography and the mathematics behind securing information. She’d read about it in email chains, keeping a curious eye on its growth.
“This is a cute, gimmicky little tool that is a proof of concept,” Manning said she thought of Bitcoin early on, as opposed to “a way to get rich quick.”
She viewed Bitcoin as an experiment in building cryptographically based networks as a decentralized means of storing information, less so as a way to generate wealth through the accumulation of code. She remains wary today.
“I have a great interest in the technology [of blockchain], but the economic aspect, I’m a little bit more skeptical,” Manning told Decrypt. “I just don’t see how something [that] can switch from having some value to not having value very quickly as being a sustainable sort of system.”
The technology, Manning continued, could be used to revolutionize sharing information electronically, especially when it comes to privacy, protecting the contents of messages, and verifying sources. When the economics of Bitcoin began to dominate the conversation, she became less interested.
“I moved away from it because I realized that there’s a lot of people who don't understand the technical aspects of this, or the security and privacy implications of this technology, but they view this as a brand that’s cool to be a part of,” she said.
Manning now works on the security side of a privacy infrastructure project called Nym that uses blockchain technology and has its own native currency, which powers a network that encrypts data.
Another way she sees utility in ledger technology is by making private-messaging apps more secure by eliminating a single point of failure for systems. Using peer-to-peer networks, it wouldn’t be possible for messaging systems to stop functioning if servers went down in a specific location, unlike centralized messaging systems, such as Signal.
Securing people’s ability to be activists or journalists is one of the major benefits of systems built using blockchain technology, said Manning. Projects like Nym, which use digital tokens to power its service and mix together pieces of information in an indistinguishable way, aren’t built around profitability but rather functionality.
While Manning sees a lot of overlap between cryptocurrency and the privacy community, privacy experts have expressed concerns about cryptocurrencies because of the potential economic incentives.
“People jump on board, they get super excited and they cash in as soon as it starts to tumble, and I think that those kinds of things keep a lot of the more privacy-minded, more security-minded people away,” Manning said.
While involved in Nym from a security standpoint, she maintains that she does not have any financial stake in the project. “I wish to keep it the way,” she added, “so I can maintain some objectivity as a security expert.”