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U.S. whistleblower Chelsea Manning isn’t a fan of cryptocurrencies. And yet the former intelligence analyst is backing crypto to power a computer platform called Nym Technologies that prevents governments and corporations from tracking people’s online activity.
Manning joined the Nym project last year as security analyst, hoping to help protect internet traffic from prying eyes. The project launched in 2018 with funding from wealthy investors, wooed by Nym’s decision to reward computer whiz kids with an eponymous digital token for running the network online.
Even the European Commission is excited, providing much of the money that Nym needed for research and development before launching. The Commission followed up last year by sending another €450,000 in grant money.
Just don’t call the Nym token a cryptocurrency.
“I’m the crypto skeptic,” Manning told POLITICO in Brussels last week, echoing criticism that digital currencies are prone to scams and financial speculation. The Nym tokens merely give “an incentive to run” the network of computers supporting the technology, she said.
Nym’s software offers the infrastructure for web browsers, messaging platforms and other software applications to encrypt and send people’s data around the internet confidentially. The aim is to prevent personal data from being monitored, surveilled or touched by third parties.
The network isn’t just designed for ordinary citizens. It will also allow for “smaller governments to escape some form of cyber colonialism by the United States, or by Russia or China,” said Harry Halpin, Nym’s chief executive officer, who joined Manning on her Brussels visit.
Online privacy has become a hot topic for citizens and politicians alike. Revelations by the other notorious U.S. whistleblower, Edward Snowden, have revealed how U.S. spies have monitored ordinary citizens and world leaders.
The subsequent Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 only sharpened people’s concerns after some 50 million U.S. Facebook users had their data harvested without their knowledge. Many living in democracies view such online snooping as an invasion of personal privacy. But for people living under oppressive regimes, finding a secure channel of communication can become a dangerous challenge.
“As a trans person, I care enormously about privacy. As an activist I care enormously about privacy,” said Manning, who came out as transgender in 2013. “As somebody who’s been to prison, I understand the significance of the consequences of having your privacy violated.”
A U.S. military court charged her under the Espionage Act and sentenced her to 35 years in a male prison in 2013, convicting her of passing more than 700,000 diplomatic cables, videos and documents to WikiLeaks. Former U.S. President Barack Obama then commuted Manning’s sentence three days before he left the White House.
Riding the crypto boom
Despite Manning’s resentment for crypto, it’s the digital token that made the privacy project succeed.
Nym struggled to secure sizeable funding in its early days. But once Halpin decided to embed crypto into the project, deep-pocketed tech companies and venture capitalists, including Andreessen Horowitz, came knocking.
“I could not raise more than $50,000” in 2017, Halpin said. “Now, with the crypto currency boom, our first check came from [crypto exchange] Binance.” Since tapping the Nym token’s potential, his team has raised around $52 million, from armchair investors as well as mainstream financial companies, to hire more software engineers and security auditors.
“You can say, yes, we’re dancing with the devil, but then we also have an ethical commitment that we’ve had for 10 years, if not more, to try and build this technology, [to] put it out there and make it usable,” Haplin said.
Crypto comes with risks, however. The value of the crypto asset market has crashed by more than half since its all-time high in November, attracting scrutiny from wary policymakers, who warn against scams and its speculative nature.
Manning and Halpin are determined to distance themselves from that fallout.
“This is not a Web-3, scammy application or something like that,” the whistleblower said. “I really do view Nym as being a part of what, in three to five years from now, will be a renaissance in the post-cryptocurrency blockchain space.”
For the privacy project to succeed, Nym tokens will have to keep their value to attract computer engineers from across the world to help run its computer network.
Nym works by breaking the data that programs and apps generate on its platform into small identical digital packets and encrypting them. It then mixes those packets with others so that it’s very difficult to track. The mixing process — which is invisible to the program user — is done by people who have set up computer servers, or nodes, within the decentralized network. They leave a minimum deposit of 100 Nym tokens to set up a node within the network. The more data they mix, the more Nym tokens they get.
People can also invest tokens into high-performing nodes and get returns — to a point. There are caps built into the system that prevent a small group of nodes from becoming too big or wealthy. But the chances of getting rich from operating Nym nodes are currently small. A token was priced at €0.40 on Binance at the time of writing.
“I don’t think anyone will be making huge amounts of money of this,” said Manning. “I don’t see people running nodes in order for them to become nouveau riche millionaires living in L.A.”
Vincent Manancourt contributed reporting.
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