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WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, previously famous for leaking a video of an American helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed several people (with a scene showing one of them carrying a rocket-propelled grenade edited out), is making headlines again — this time for his data dump of classified material about the war in Afghanistan. His supporters like to think of him as “an Internet freedom fighter.” Assange himself has collaborated with this image by making pious assertions about the value of “transparency” — of the sort WikiLeaks has produced — for reducing international corruption and creating better government. But Assange’s own profile, far from that of a conscientious moral critic bent on revealing unethical behavior, shows the evolution of an information vandal sublimely indifferent to those who might be put at risk by his behavior.
Born in Australia in 1971, Assange grew up in an unanchored family which had moved 37 times by the time he was 14. His cheap teenage thrills involved invading the secure worlds that others created. By 1987, Assange had established a reputation as a sophisticated computer programmer who could break into even the most well-protected networks. But he indicated his real intentions by joining with two fellow hackers to form a group that became known as the International Subversives. They broke into computer systems from Europe to North America, including, most notably, networks belonging to the U.S. Defense Department and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In a book to which he contributed — Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier – Assange tried to create an aura of morality around this activity, defining what he called the Golden Rules of the hacker subculture: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”
Hacking remained an obsession for Assange throughout his late teens; the excitement he derived from it was only amplified by his knowledge that federal authorities were doggedly trying to catch him and his fellow “Subversives.” This self-dramatization continues today, as Assange constantly moves from place to place, maintaining no real home, because he fears that international governmental agencies, particularly those in the U.S., may have targeted him for reprisal for the leaks he has orchestrated.
In September 1991, Assange hacked into the master terminal that the Canadian telecom company Nortel maintained in Melbourne. Soon thereafter, he was caught by federal investigators and was charged with 31 counts of hacking and related offenses. Facing a potential sentence of a decade behind bars, Assange pled guilty to 25 charges and 6 were dropped. At his final sentencing, the judge went easy on him: “There is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to—what’s the expression—surf through these various computers.” Thus Assange escaped with the lightest of penalties — the payment of a small fine.
After the hacking trial, Assange lived below the radar in Melbourne for a number of years, working variously as a computer programmer and software developer, among other pursuits. He also studied physics and math at the University of Melbourne. Then, in 2006, he began the process of creating WikiLeaks, a website that would publish confidential government documents and images. His inspiration for this brainstorm was the infamous Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 — the year of Assange’s birth — had published the Pentagon Papers.
Shortly after getting WikiLeaks off the ground, Assange flew to Kenya to attend the World Social Forum — a yearly symposium dedicated to the redistribution of wealth and the eradication of capitalism — where he delivered a presentation about his new website.
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