Julian Assange: Wikileaks founder is a hacker fighting for freedom of information

The founder of Wikileaks has built his life around an uncompromising quest for information. At the age of 39, he has no home and travels the world with one bag containing his clothes, and another holding his computer. Acquaintances who have worked with him on some of Wikileaks' biggest scoops point to a man who is "precise and obsessive", and who talks, with equal knowledge, of computer security and geopolitics.

The Afghan papers mark the biggest case in the short history of Wikileaks, which he set up in 2006. But for Mr Assange, it was the latest stage in a life of action against vested interests.

His parents met at an anti-Vietnam demonstration. His mother believed that a formal education would instil an unhealthy respect for authority on her son and he moved 37 times before he was aged 14. During one of the moves, he lived opposite an electronics shop and went there to write programmes on an early home computer, quickly learning to crack into programmes. "The austerity of one's interaction with a computer is something that appealed to me," he told last month's New Yorker magazine.

With his sharp mind, growing computer skills and outsider mentality, he entered the nascent world of hacking, setting up a group that came to be known as International Subversives. He is said to have broken into the US Defence Department and other supposedly secure sites.

Australian investigators finally caught up with him after he hacked into a telecoms company. He admitted 25 charges, but the judge ordered him to pay a token sum because his activities had caused no damage.

After a series of jobs — including as a computer security consultant – Mr Assange studied physics, but appears to have become depressed about the conformity of his academic colleagues. He explained his thinking in a document, "Conspiracy as Governance". It detailed how leaks could be an instrument for breaking down unrepresentative government that thrived on keeping information secret. As a hacker and as a physicist, he has come to define his life as one of the individual battling the institution. With Wikileaks, he attempted to break down those networks.

Since it went online, his site has secured an enviable number of scoops that have included corruption in Kenya to working procedures at Guantanamo Bay. But the release of the Afghan papers is by far its biggest production, planned from a London basement. And yesterday he came out to promote his scoop.

With his thin frame and long, white hair – which is said to have lost all its colour after a stressful custody battle over a son in the 1990s – he cuts a striking figure. His accent is hard to place. He thinks carefully before answering questions, knowing the sensitivity of his position. He says that he and other colleagues have been targeted. "We understand from the word of a national security reporter in Australia that the Australian government was asked by the US to engage in certain forms of surveillance to my person and other Wikileaks people in Australia," he said yesterday. "That source says most of those requests were rejected by the Australian government."

Mr Assange works with a small team of "dedicated and overworked" staff, as well as 800 part-time volunteers and thousands of supporters.

The group's most high-profile previous success came with the release of a helicopter cockpit video that showed civilians shot in Baghdad. To prepare the work for publication, he hunkered down in a house in Reykjavik with a small group of allies. Two colleagues went to Iraq to try to verify the claims while Mr Assange worked long hours in the "bunker", said Smari McCarthy, of the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society.

"I have been involved in this freedom of information for a decade, but I just don't have the energy and drive that he has," said Mr McCarthy. "He has structured his life around this quest for freedom of information."

The publicity brought by the video added $1m (£6.5m) to the group's coffers this year. It also prompted more people to come forward with leaks of their own. "Courage is contagious," says Mr Assange.

At a talk to journalism students earlier this year, the Wikileaks founder said he had come into contact with soldiers after publishing a vast database of army equipment used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers found that the database helped them to track down spare parts for their vehicles.

Those contacts appear to have provided Mr Assange with a useful source of military revelations. He promised yesterday that there was much more to come.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness