In 2006, Australian computer programmer Julian Assange founded WikiLeaks, the website that would eventually gain worldwide fame in 2010 for publishing Chelsea Manning’s leaked Afghan and Iraq war files. Assange remains a controversial figure, currently imprisoned in the UK and awaiting extradition to the U.S. under espionage charges.
Background in ethical hacking
The son of antiwar activists, Julian Assange (born Julian Paul Hawkins) showed an early aptitude for hacking. At 16, he formed a hacking group with two friends in Melbourne, calling themselves the International Subversives. Together they successfully hacked into a number of high-profile targets, including the Pentagon, Citibank, Lockheed Martin, and several universities.
In 1991, Australian Federal Police raided Assange’s home, eventually charging him with 31 counts of hacking and related crimes. He pleaded guilty to 25 and was released with a fine because of his age and lack of malicious intent. Two years later, Assange would cooperate with local law enforcement by providing technical assistance in prosecuting child pornographers.
Assange studied programming, mathematics and physics at Central Queensland University and Melbourne University but never completed his degree. He made several contributions to open-source software, including co-authoring the port scanner Strobe and making bug fixes to PostgreSQL.
As early as 1999 Assange registered the domain leaks.org and warned of upcoming global surveillance. The Independent quoted him in 1999 as saying: “Everyone’s overseas phone calls are or may soon be tapped, transcribed, and archived in the bowels of an unaccountable foreign spy agency.”
Assange and others started WikiLeaks in 2006, releasing a document that implicated a Somali political figure in an attempt to assassinate government officials. The group solicited similar leaks, using a secure online drop box to protect whistleblowers. Early on, Wikileaks considered themselves a publication similar to other journalistic entities, naming Assange as their editor in chief.
Before rising to global fame in 2010, Wikileaks published information about corruption in the Arab world, Peru, and Kenya, as well as unrest in Tibet.
WikiLeaks finally gained international attention in 2010 when U.S. Army intelligence analyst
Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) used the website to leak the largest set of classified documents ever released, including 400,000 files’ worth of Afghan and Iraq war logs, hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department cables, and a particularly damning video of an air strike in Baghdad, which WikiLeaks titled “Collateral Murder.”
After these leaks, WikiLeaks continued to publish classified documents including the Guantanamo Bay files, the Syria files, and emails from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign chairman John Podesta.
Many people see Julian Assange as a heroic figure who has defended the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know the truth at great personal cost. In 2010, Time magazine readers voted him Person of the Year. In his home country of Australia, Assange was awarded the Sydney Peace Foundation Gold Medal for Peace with Justice.
The Manning leaks of 2010 earned Assange many enemies, especially in the U.S. government, with the attorney general announcing soon after that the Justice Department was pursuing an active, ongoing criminal investigation into WikiLeaks.”
Around the same time, Swedish authorities opened a case against Assange over allegations of rape and sexual assault. Assange denied the allegations, and the investigation was eventually dropped, but not before Assange sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012.
In 2017, the embassy granted Assange Ecuadorian citizenship and attempted to appoint him to a diplomatic position at its embassy in Moscow, a move that was blocked by British authorities.
In April 2019, Ecuador withdrew their asylum and released Assange into the custody of British police. He was sentenced to 50 weeks in jail for breaching his previous bail arrangements.
As of today, he remains in jail in the UK awaiting the verdict of his extradition to the U.S. to face espionage charges and a maximum 170-year jail sentence. Keep up with Julian Assange’s legal troubles.