When Julian Assange was finally arrested in London on Dec. 7, it was on allegations of having had unwelcome, unprotected intercourse with two Swedish women, and not for convulsing global diplomacy with his slow, controversial leak of diplomatic cables that infuriated allies, embarrassed kings and princes, were condemned by Washington for endangering lives, and dismissed by Tehran as a CIA plot. In a story worthy of a bestseller by Stieg Larsson, with its mix of state secrets, sex, and self-righteous computer geeks, it could come to pass that the man at the helm of WikiLeaks, who could not be pinned down by the U.S. Espionage Act, is vulnerable to a Swedish law against “sex by surprise.”
Assange, with his pale Warholian looks, is now a world hyper-celebrity or international super-villain, out of hiding and in custody, but still defiant. The Swedes may be the first to get him, but many more governments would like to get their hands on him. It has been a remarkable journey for someone who started out as a teenage hacker in his native Australia but became one of the most notorious men in the world—an individual who may have drastically altered the rules both in the world of diplomacy and the business of journalism. It is a story that has left people wondering about his motives, and pondering the question: what drives Julian Assange?
Assange’s first encounter with the law, and his first fight for the secrets of a government bureaucracy, trace back to 1990, when the then-20-year-old Australian hacked into the Melbourne computers of the Canadian company Nortel.
Assange had been hacking since he was 16, an escape from a childhood that could charitably be described as unstable. He was born in Townsville, a small city on the northeastern coast of Australia, and grew up, among other places, on Magnetic Island—a coastal island named for its mysterious interference with Capt. James Cook’s ship’s compass in 1770. His mother Christine was a roving, bohemian artist who moved her son through dozens of homes and schools before he was 15 (Assange’s parents split shortly after his birth, and his mother married a fellow artist when he was two).
The Townsville Bulletin reported in July that school friends “described Mr. Assange’s family as very alternative, borderline hippies, adding it was: ‘quite exciting to go to their house, so many different things were happening.’ ” Sometimes Assange went to school, sometimes he didn’t, but he was self-taught in a variety of subjects and had a passion for computers. His mother and stepfather travelled around Australia, putting on theatrical plays—his stepfather directed and his mother designed the sets.
They divorced when Assange was nine, and his mother took up with a musician whom Assange would later describe as “a manipulative and violent psychopath.” By his teens, mother and son were on the run from the abusive ex-boyfriend, criss-crossing Australia, and hiding under assumed names. They finally settled on the outskirts of Melbourne, in a rural town called Emerald. There, when he was 17, Assange married his girlfriend, whom he has described as “an intelligent but introverted and emotionally disturbed 16-year-old he had met through a mutual friend in a gifted children’s program.” A year later, they had a son, Daniel.
It was in Emerald that Assange, under the handle “Mendax,” turned a $700 Amiga computer from his mother into a portal through which his roving mind could reach into the outside world. The details of Assange’s childhood and his hacking exploits are detailed in a 1997 book entitled Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier, by Australian academic Suelette Dreyfus (on which Assange is credited as a researcher).
According to the book, the young Assange worked as part of a trio of young hackers who called themselves the International Subversives, and infiltrated computers around the world. They bragged of carrying out cyber “assaults” on what they called a “who’s who of the U.S. military-industrial complex,” from the 7th Air Force’s command group headquarters in the Pentagon, and Lockheed Martin’s Tactical Aircraft Systems plant in Texas, to corporations such as Motorola and Xerox. On one such occasion, Mendax discovered Pentagon hackers infiltrating military computers on what he surmised to be a practice mission. The possibility disturbed him. “Hackers, he thought, should be anarchists,” wrote Dreyfus. “Not hawks.”
Assange and his friends hacked for sport and bragging rights, following a credo of not damaging the computers they infiltrated and not proﬁting from the information they found. They used technical prowess and, at times, human deception. On one occasion, Assange resorted to calling a user of a computer system he was trying to hack, posing as a computer technician and asking for his account password, ostensibly to perform maintenance. To make the call credible from his country perch, he recreated the buzz of a Sydney office building by tape-recording a soundtrack of printer noises, his own typing, and the background murmur of his own voice reading out lines from Macbeth.
The undoing of the International Subversives would be Nortel, which sold high-tech equipment that ran some of the world’s largest telephone companies, including Australia’s. Mendax set his sights on Nortel in order to find documents that would help him manipulate telephone exchanges, or to install “back doors” in the company’s software that could enable him to control telephone switches installed by Nortel all over the world. “What power! Mendax thought, what if you could turn off 10,000 phones in Rio de Janeiro, or give 5,000 New Yorkers free calls one afternoon, or listen into private telephone conversations in Brisbane. The telecommunications world would be your oyster,” the book recounts.
Once he hacked into the system, Mendax started playing. One of his first acts was to instruct the computer to make 1,000 telephones all ring at once. He found internal security to be relaxed. “By sneaking in the back door, the hackers found themselves able to raid all sorts of Nortel sites, from St. Kilda Road in Melbourne to the corporation’s headquarters in [suburban] Toronto,” wrote Dreyfus. “One of them described it as being ‘like a shipwrecked man washed ashore on a Tahitian island populated by 11,000 virgins, just ripe for the picking.’ ”