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Chelsea Manning Is Hacking Again, This Time For A Bitcoin-Based Privacy Startup

ComplianceX | Jack J. Kelly | Aug 25, 2021

Chealsea Manning - Chelsea Manning Is Hacking Again, This Time For A Bitcoin-Based Privacy StartupChelsea 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.  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 hide the tracks of other online users.

By January 2017, she was seven-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.

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Halpin asked Manning to look for security weaknesses in his new privacy project, which eventually became Nym, a Neuchâtel, Switzerland-based crypto startup. Halprin founded Nym in 2018 to send data anonymously around the Internet using the same blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin.

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 business 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.”

In prison she studied carpentry, but she never stopped exploring her earlier vocation. “I’m a certified carpenter,” she says. “But when I wasn’t doing that, I would read a lot of cryptography papers.” In 2016, she was visited in prison by Yan Zhu, a physicist from MIT who would later go on to become chief security officer of Brave, a privacy-protecting internet browser that pays users in cryptocurrency in exchange for agreeing to see ads.

She and Zhu were concerned with vulnerabilities they saw in Tor, including its dependence on the good will of governments and academic institutions. In 2020 53% of its $5 million funding came from the US government and 27% came from other Western governments, tax-subsidized non-profits, foundations and companies. Worse, in their opinion, the technology to break privacy was being funded at a higher rate than the technology to protect it.

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“As the dark web, or Tor, and VPN, and all these other services became more prolific, the tools to do traffic analysis had dramatically improved,” says Manning. “And there’s sort of been a cold war that’s been going on between the Tor project developers, and a number of state actors and large internet service providers.” In 2014 the FBI learned how to decipher Tor data. By 2020 a single user reportedly controlled enough Tor nodes to steal bitcoin transactions initiated over the network.

Using two lined pieces of composition paper from the prison commissary, Manning drew a schematic for Zhu of what she called, Tor Plus. Instead of just encrypting the data she proposed to inject the information equivalent of noise into network communications. In the margins of the document she even postulated that blockchain, the technology popularized by bitcoin, could play a role. In the notes below she wrote the words: “New Hope.”

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NCFA Jan 2018 resize - Chelsea Manning Is Hacking Again, This Time For A Bitcoin-Based Privacy Startup The National Crowdfunding & Fintech Association (NCFA Canada) is a financial innovation ecosystem that provides education, market intelligence, industry stewardship, networking and funding opportunities and services to thousands of community members and works closely with industry, government, partners and affiliates to create a vibrant and innovative fintech and funding industry in Canada. Decentralized and distributed, NCFA is engaged with global stakeholders and helps incubate projects and investment in fintech, alternative finance, crowdfunding, peer-to-peer finance, payments, digital assets and tokens, blockchain, cryptocurrency, regtech, and insurtech sectors. Join Canada's Fintech & Funding Community today FREE! Or become a contributing member and get perks. For more information, please visit: www.ncfacanada.org

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