Five years ago, from her prison cell, trans whistleblower Chelsea Manning sketched out a new way to protect online privacy. Now, she is helping an MIT-affiliated cryptographer bring the next generation of privacy software online.
Chelsea Manning’s long blonde hair catches in a cool summer breeze as she turns the corner into Brooklyn’s Starr Bar, a dimly lit counter-cultural haunt in the heart of the hipster enclave of Bushwick. The 33-year-old best known for leaking hundreds of thousands of top-secret government documents to Julian Assange in 2010, then coming out as a transgender woman, walks past a poster depicting sea turtles, humans and geese merging to form the outline of a dove. Beside the image are the words, “Your Nations Cannot Contain Us.”
Dressed in a black suit and wearing a silver Omega watch, she makes her way to a small wooden table illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. She orders a Coke. Contrary to what one might expect, this whistleblower turned trans icon looks uncomfortable in the hip surroundings. A fan reverently approaches her and welcomes her back. “This is my life,” she says after he leaves, expressing gratitude for the good wishes and lamenting the loss of her privacy. “I’m not just famous—I’m in the history books.”
While serving the longest sentence ever doled out to a whistleblower after she used the privacy-protecting Tor Network to anonymously leak 700,000 government documents, she used her time in incarceration to devise a better way to cover the tracks of other online users. Knowing that the nonprofit Tor Project she used to send files to Wikileaks had become increasingly vulnerable to the prying eyes of intelligence agencies and law enforcement, she sketched out a new way to hide internet traffic using blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin, to build a similar network, without troublesome government funding. The entire plan was hatched in a military prison, on paper.
Fixing the known weaknesses of these networks is about more than just protecting future whistleblowers and criminals. Private networks are also vital for big businesses that want to protect trade secrets. The privacy network industry, including the virtual private networks (VPNs) familiar to many corporate users, generated $29 billion in revenue in 2019 and is expected to triple to $75 billion by 2027. Manning thinks that not-for-profit efforts like Tor, which relies on U.S. government funding and a worldwide network of volunteers to run its anonymous servers, aren’t robust enough. “Nonprofits are unsustainable,” says Manning casually, sipping from her Coke. “They require constant upholding by large capital funds, by large governments.”
By January 2017, she was 7 years into a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, home to the likes of former Army Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 14 fellow soldiers in 2009. As President Barack Obama prepared to leave office, he granted Manning an unconditional commutation of her sentence. Newly tasting freedom, she was contacted by Harry Halpin, the 41-year-old mathematician who worked for World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee at MIT from 2013 to 2016 helping standardize the use of cryptography across Web browsers.
Halpin asked Manning to look for security weaknesses in his new privacy project, which eventually became Nym, a Neuchâtel, Switzerland-based crypto startup. Halpin founded Nym in 2018 to send data anonymously around the Internet using the same blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin. To date, Nym has raised some $8.5 million from a group of crypto investors including Binance, Polychain Capital and NGC Ventures. The firm now employs ten people and is using its latest round of capital to double its team size.
Halpin was impressed by Manning’s technical knowledge. More than just a famous leaker who happened to have access to secret documents, Manning struck Halpin as someone with a deep technological understanding of how governments and big businesses seek to spy on private messages.
“We’ve very rarely had access to people who really were inside the machine, who can explain what they believe the actual capabilities of these kinds of adversaries are, what kinds of attacks are more likely,” says Halpin. “She’ll help us fix holes in our design.”