/ Cory Doctorow / 10 am Mon, Jan 25 2016
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  • Chelsea Manning interview: DNA, big data, official secrecy, and citizenship

    Chelsea Manning interview: DNA, big data, official secrecy, and citizenship

    Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg creates portraits from DNA samples, usually working from found samples -- chewing gum, cigarette butts -- of people she's never met. But this year, she's done a pair of extraordinary portraits of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower currently serving a 35-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth for her role in the Wikileaks Cablegate publications.

    Dewey-Hagborg's first portrait was a still image, but she followed this up with a full-sized, color 3D model called "Radical Love: Chelsea Manning," that debuted at Davos, as part of the Victoria and Albert exhibition Future Design.

    The title of the piece, “Radical Love” comes from Chelsea’s resistance to the idea that she or her ideas are radical - a term she sees as polarizing and alienating. Instead, she points to how incredibly common it is to love and to simply want to be oneself. “Radical Love” points to a hope of moving past divisive political boundaries, to build community and new forms of knowledge and policy guided by compassion and empathy.

    The work is generated using the technique of “forensic DNA phenotyping,” to create a 3 dimensional life sized "portrait mask" that is printed in a 3D printer. This "forensic DNA phenotyping process" is a problematic, yet increasingly common police practice of generating a likeness of a suspect from their DNA alone, based on traits it contains, such as eye color and skin color.

    I interviewed Ms Manning in Fort Leavenworth through an intermediary, coordinated by her support network.


    Tell me your thoughts on the exhibit. Why did you consent to it? What do you think it says about our society? What is the role of DNA in art? If you could undertake your own genetic art, what would it be?

    Heather was asked to analyze my DNA for a portrait of me for Paper Magazine last year. I was already somewhat familiar with some of Heather's previous projects involving DNA, so, when I was asked whether or not I wanted to do this project, I immediately said yes!

    A sculpture based on a portrait is the natural progression of this project. It projects a presence that I don't think very many three dimensional artworks are able to do. Our society's dependence on imagery says a lot about our values. Unfortunately, prisons try very hard to make us inhuman and unreal by denying our image, and thus our existence, to the rest of the world. Imagery has become a kind of proof of existence. Just consider the online refrain "pics or it didn't happen."

    The use of DNA in art provides a cutting edge and a very post-modern—almost "post-post-modern"—analysis of thought, identity, and expression. It combines chemistry, biology, information, and our ideas of beauty and identity. I would love to do some DNA art that examines the other people who are cast aside from society's visibility—like prisoners, or victims of genocide. There are some ethical and moral questions that this might raise—but, I think it would be very important for us to ask these questions.



    Chelsea Manning digital rendering from DNA - gender parameter excluded - photo credit Heather Dewey-Hagborg


    Where are you at now? What are your prospects as you understand them?

    I am still appealing my court martial conviction before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the first court that hears appeals for military convictions in the U.S. Army. I have hired a stellar appeals team out of Albuquerque, New Mexico—Nancy Hollander and Vince Ward of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, P.A. I have also been appointed a military lawyer by the Army. They have gone through thousands of pages of the records in my case in order to map out its most serious flaws.

    Due to several complications in this process, we have been delayed in filing our brief before the court. However, it is almost certain that we will be filing before summer of this year.

    The U.S. Government has refused to confirm or deny that there is any ongoing investigation in to your matter, but it looks like they spilled some beans to you? Can you explain what happened, and what it means?

    Nearly two years ago, I requested a copy of the FBI files related to their role in the investigation of my case. After going through a lengthy FOIA process, I finally filed a lawsuit to compel the FBI and the Department of Justice to turn over these records.

    The basis of their denial is that there is still an ongoing investigation into my case. They have admitted as such before the court in a joint filing. This is the reason that they won't turn these records over. However, their response is still vague. The government has not acknowledged who they are investigating, or why—just that it is directly related to my case and court martial.



    Chelsea Manning digital rendering from DNA - gender parameter assigned female - photo credit Heather Dewey-Hagborg


    What are your views on big data, data mining, transparency, and fairness? What role do algorithms have to play in society — criminal justice, war fighting, finance, etc.?

    The ability to collect and store vast amounts of information is the predictable result of exponential increases in automated data output; the storage capacity of information mediums, such as memory cards and hard drives, the number of connections between connections of computers on networks, and the bandwidth over these networks.

    Algorithms are used to try and find connections among the incomprehensible "big data" pools that we now gather regularly. Like a scalpel, they're supposed to slice through the data and surgically extract an answer or a prediction to a very narrow question of our choosing—such as which neighborhood to put more police resources into, where terrorists are likely to be hiding, or which potential loan recipients are most likely to default. But—and we often forget this—these algorithms are limited to determining the likelihood or chance based on a correlation, and are not a foregone conclusion. They are also based on the biases created by the algorithm's developer. These biases can be further reinforced by a feedback loop created by the algorithm itself—because without a careful meta-analysis, these algorithms can strengthen future results without considering their own impact on the outcome.

    We should consider the lesson of the discovery of Google's own "racist algorithm." In this case, people with "racially associated names" in America, would pull up ads related to criminal records, while other names' results lack such ads. This was not a benign discovery. Such subtle biases in results can slowly nudge an advantage or disadvantage of the daily lives of large numbers of people over time.

    These algorithms are even more dangerous when they happen to be proprietary "black boxes." This means they cannot be examined by the public. Flaws in algorithms, concerning criminal justice, voting, or military and intelligence, can drastically affect huge populations in our society. Yet, since they are not made open to the public, we often have no idea whether or not they are behaving fairly, and not creating unintended consequences—let alone deliberate and malicious consequences.

    Your own hearings before the disciplinary board were held in secret, without access to counsel. I understand that you have been doing research toward "secret justice." What have you found—is it on the rise? If so, how?

    Last year, in the run up to and during my disciplinary hearing over four charges by the prison, I requested that the hearing be made available to the public. Yet, what I encountered was a system that thrives on opacity and secrecy. For many weeks, I did not know what I was being charged with. Later, I was surprised by the prison with charges that I didn't fully understand. I then found out that the prison had recently changed the rules to disallow people access to an attorney to explain the charges, or to prepare a case for the board. Worse still, this is increasingly the case in prisons all across the country.

    In the last half century, the entire justice system has been nudged further and further into secrecy. New court rules have been imposed requiring ever-more documents to be sealed. Prisons are more closed to outsiders than ever before. New and draconian communication rules and laws have been passed barring prisoners—even prisoners that haven't been convicted of anything—from being able to speak with or write to the outside world.

    The rise in secrecy has created a number of legal and political black holes for the public consciousness. Prosecutors, judges, and prisons have been viewed more favorably simply because there are fewer chances for members of the public—let alone prisoners—to examine their decisions. These systemic problems are starting to come into the foreground of the public consciousness only now, following a rise in the understanding of solitary confinement, and the number of police shooting incidents that have been scrutinized and found to be nothing more than high tech executions. But, this is only after the system has become so vast and complicated that it is nearly impossible for the public to comprehend.

    This is why we need laws that actually promote openness. We need transparency laws. Such laws would not be the Orwellian, ironically named "Freedom of Information" laws that local, state, and the federal governments regularly use to deny information. Instead, these would be open records laws that would allow the public to quickly and efficiently examine what is going on in their government in their own neighborhoods, towns, cities, and states.

    What's your call to arms for people who care about the issues that sent you to jail? What should they be doing? What would you be doing, if you were free?

    Read everything. Ask your own questions. Be your own filter. Nobody is going to look at the world around you and tell you what important things are happening that affect you and the ones you love.

    They will sell you things. They will ask you to vote for them. They will offer their services to you. They have an ambiguous agenda that doesn't really involve your interests as a citizen. There is a difference between a consumer—who passively receives the information that they are spoon fed—and a citizen—who engages with society, asks questions, does research, and works towards making a difference in their neighborhood, city, and country. This is what I try to be—whether I'm in prison or outside—I keep reading and asking questions as a citizen.

    What gives you cause for optimism, or at least hope from where you are?

    I receive tons of letters and cards and online messages from people all over the world, every single day. I wish I could answer every single one. I want to tell people how much I love and appreciate their well wishes and support. I am endlessly grateful for the fact that, even so long after my trial—nearly three years ago now—I still get the same love and support that I had on day one. This gives me more optimism and hope than anything else ever could. I am so thankful.

    (Images: Header by Monika Flueckiger; renders Heather Dewey-Hagborg; all others by Thomas Dexter)

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