Julian Assange: 'I am – like all hackers – a little bit autistic'

The thrill of getting into top-secret websites quickly became addictive for Julian Assange. Here he describes all-night hacking sessions, a cat-and-mouse game with a computer administrator and the arrival of the police...

When I started hacking you were just one layer above the bare metal. You were typing into this wonderful emptiness, waiting to be populated with minds. A few of us were interested in projecting our thoughts into the computer to make it do something new. We began writing codes and we began cracking them, too.

The thrill was exorbitant. It was like the first time you beat an adult at chess. I'm amazed when I run into people who don't understand the pleasure in this, for it is the pleasure of creation itself, of understanding something intimately and making it new.



Every hacker has a handle, and I took the name Mendax, from Horace's Splendide Mendax – nobly untruthful, or perhaps "delightfully deceptive". I liked the idea that in hiding behind a false name, lying about who or where I was, a teenager in Melbourne, I could somehow speak more truthfully about my real identity. By now, the computer work was taking up a great deal of my time. I was beginning to get the hacker's disease: no sleep, bottomless curiosity, single-mindedness, and an obsession with precision. Later, when I became well known, people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger's or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, so let's just say I am – all hackers are, and I would argue all men are a little bit autistic. But in my mid- to late teens I could barely focus on anything that didn't seem to me like a major breakthrough.

It was certainly addictive. You'd dive down into a computer system – typically, for me at the time, the Pentagon's 8th Command Group computers. You'd take it over, projecting your mind all the way from your untidy bedroom to the entire system along the halls, and all the while you're learning to understand that system better than the people in Washington. It was like being able to teleport yourself into the interior of the Pentagon in order to walk around and take charge.

It sounds ridiculous, but we found our own keyholes into the inner workings of vast corporations, and we installed others, until we found we would be able to control their whole system. Turn off 20,000 phone lines in Buenos Aires? No problem. Give New Yorkers free telephone calls for an afternoon with no good reason? Do it.

You would bump into your adversaries inside the system. Like meeting strangers on a dark night. There were maybe 50 people in the world at that time, adversaries and brethren, equally part of an elite group of computer explorers, working at a high level. On a typical night, you would have, say, an Australian computer hacker talking to an Italian computer hacker inside the computer system of a French nuclear complex.

As experiences of young adulthood go, it was mindblowing. By day you'd be walking down the street to the supermarket, meeting people you know, people who have no sense of you as anything other than a slacker teenager, and you'd know you had spent last night knee-deep in Nasa. We were even able to hack into the police's systems. There we first came across a policeman called Sergeant Ken Day, who appeared to be obsessed with our activities – and who would later turn out to be our nemesis.

One night, as I explored Nortel's network, I realised I was being watched. It was 2.30am and a system administrator was on to us. I tried for an hour to circumvent his inspections, block his way, all the while deleting the incriminating directory and walking backwards, clearing the path of my footprints. The administrator had been logged on from home, but after a break he appeared at the main Nortel console. He had gone into work.

I was now in trouble: you can only obfuscate for so long. He had me. I made a message appear on the administrator's screen:

I have finally become sentient.

Then, a little later:

I have taken control.

For years, I have been struggling in this greyness.

But now I have finally seen the light.

The administrator kept cool. He began checking all the modem lines. The scene could only play out to his advantage. I typed:

It's been nice playing with your system.

Pause. Nothing. Pause. Like cyber-Pinter. I typed again:

We didn't do any damage and we even improved a few things. Please don't call the Australian Federal Police.

I was alone and sad on the night that they came. My wife and child had just left, and I had come to the end of my rope... Our squat was a mess, and I sat on the sofa reading – a vision of things to come – the prison letters of George Jackson, kept in the toughest US prisons at the pleasure of the authorities. I was broken. I was listening, half-listening, to a telephone fault signal that was sounding through my stereo speakers.

At 11.30 that night there was a knock at the door and a play of shadows outside. The police announced themselves and I thought of all the times I had expected them, all the times I dreamt they were coming. I opened the door and found about a dozen federal officers with battering equipment. A man at the front looked me in the eye as if he always knew we would meet. At that moment it occurred to me that the disks with stuff I had found in the Pentagon system on them weren't in their usual hiding place. They were on my desk in full view of the cops. "I'm Ken Day," the head policeman said. "I believe you've been expecting me."

Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull
football
Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
film
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit