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Chelsea Manning in new Google, Facebook privacy warning

May 3, 2018

At an internet conference in Berlin, Manning said the tech giants were aiding "progress towards totalitarianism." It was her first trip abroad since being jailed for passing secret US government files to Wikileaks.

Chelsea Manning at re:publica in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

US whistleblower and transgender rights advocate Chelsea Manning on Wednesday warned that she is deeply troubled about the way in which governments and large companies collect and use people's data. 

The former US Army soldier said that search engines and social media firms were helping an "accelerated progress towards totalitarianism."

"I do not think Google or Facebook are accidentally storing data," Manning told delegates on the opening day of the "Re: publica" internet forum in Berlin.

Read more:  Whistleblower Chelsea Manning prepares for US Senate run

Algorithms are biaised

The 30-year-old added that "algorithms are not neutral," and urged those who develop the high-tech instruments and machine learning tools to closely consider their actions.

Manning, who worked as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, served four years of a 35-year sentence after being convicted in 2013 of espionage and theft, having passed hundreds of thousands of secret government files to WikiLeaks.

Shortly after being convicted, Manning, then known as Bradley, publicly announced her female gender identity and new name, Chelsea.

In May 2017, her sentence — at a military prison in Kansas  was commuted by former US president Barack Obama, although her crimes were not pardoned.

During Wednesday's session, Manning even admitted that during her deployment to Iraq, some "life and death decisions for a lot of people” were made "based on incomplete data sets."

Read more: WhatsApp co-founder to quit Facebook amid data scandal

Chelsea Manning
Manning's Berlin appearance was her first outside the US since being released from prison in May 2017Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

She warned that unless action was taken, large tech giants like Google and Facebook, as well as US government agencies, would likely to continue to fail to protect the privacy of citizens' data.

"Institutions do fail … so we can't depend on an institution, we can't ask for institutions to simply fix themselves. We actually have to make them change."

Not an idol

Speaking to an audience of several thousand in the German capital, the transgender activist said she hadn't got used to her celebrity status.

Privacy badger blocks internet tracking

"I'm very uncomfortable with that. I don't feel like a role model and I worry about being placed in that role and placed in that position because I'm pretty flawed.”

Read more: Shall I stay or shall I go now? The Facebook conundrum

When asked about the importance of maintaining free speech, Manning said the US sometimes took the concept to extremes.

"I don't necessarily think that handing every single white supremacist a microphone, like we do in America it seems, is a good idea. I don't think that's a requirement. I mean it's not, it's not, it's not free speech."

Wednesday's appearance in Berlin is part of her first trip abroad since being released. Re: publica, which runs until Friday, deals with the impact of the digital world on society and politics, and this year's edition focuses heavily on the issue of machine learning and algorithms.

mm/aw (EFE, dpa, AP)

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