Chelsea Manning said she thinks government-sponsored data collection undermines individual liberties at an event Monday.
“I value the fact that working with data, it’s not (just) data – it’s people, its lives,” she said. “We need to separate the science and math from the data – it’s people being impacted by systems everyday.”
Manning, who spent nearly seven years in prison for espionage, spoke about government data collection and transgender issues with communication professor Jim Newton in Royce Hall as part of Luskin Lecture Series.
Manning leaked classified United States military documents to Wikileaks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, the same year she came out as transgender. Former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence in 2017.
In an interview with members of the press before the event, Manning advised college students to think for themselves and question what they are told.
“Don’t just read a book and think you know everything,” she said. “My worldview was shattered after reading and deeply learning from unexpected places.”
Manning said at the event she thinks colleges do not spend enough time discussing the negative consequences of technological advancement. She said when she worked as a data analyst for the U.S. military, she felt it was scary that she had access to other people’s personal data.
“Predictions and statistics are not based on math, they are based on real people’s lives, and they are being manipulated by political systems every day,” she said. “As a part of that community, I have a responsibility in informing people.”
Manning said she originally struggled to discover her identity as a transgender individual.
“As a trans person in Oklahoma, not knowing that I was trans, it was like being an alien,” she said.
“All I can tell transgender people out there – let us come together and realize that it’s not who we are but who we are together,” she said.
Manning added she enlisted in the military in 2007 because she was unable to support herself as a full-time college student.
“I was brought up in a hypermasculine environment,” she said. “As an 18-year-old, joining the military was a bit of not knowing who I am, some desperation, maybe trying to look for a safe and secure place and the promise of college.”
Manning said learning military secrets about unreported soldier casualties during her time on active duty in Iraq made her believe the U.S. government was keeping too much information from the public.
“We were occupiers in an occupied country, and we brought all we were doing in Iraq to our streets,” she said. “Should we really have institutions that classify what a secret is based on made-up criteria?”
Students who attended the event said they think Manning did not provide many concrete details about her views.
Clayton Spivey, a third-year political science student, said he thinks Manning dodged Newton’s questions throughout the event. He added he is confused as to why she is running for the Senate seat in Maryland this year against incumbent Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin.
“If she is so dedicated to the liberal cause, why is she running against the Democratic incumbent in Maryland?” he said.
Jessica Yerkes, a third-year communication student, said she thinks Manning did not clearly explain her views on how society should balance transparency with individual liberty.
“If I were in Maryland, her lack of opinion means I wouldn’t vote for her,” she said.
Manning said while she disagrees with President Donald Trump’s view against transgender individuals serving in the military, she is more concerned with American institutions as a whole.
“It’s not about one person, it’s institutions of power built over time that needed to be tackled to solve the problems,” she said. “By focusing on one person, it doesn’t mean the whole movement is over, that all the problems are solved.”