Julian Assange is the founder and head of WikiLeaks, an Internet website dedicated to publishing confidential government documents and images, which are typically obtained illegally through computer hacking.
Born in Australia in 1971, Assange had established a reputation as a sophisticated computer programmer who could break into even the most well-protected networks by the time he was a teenager. Around 1987, he joined with two fellow hackers to form a group that became known as the International Subversives, and the trio 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. Pursued by authorities, he developed a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place, maintaining no real home, for fear that international governmental agencies -- particularly those in the U.S. -- may have targeted him for reprisal for the data leaks he had orchestrated.
In September 1991, Assange hacked into the master terminal that the Canadian telecom company Nortel maintained in Melbourne, Australia. 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, 6 of which were dropped. At his final sentencing, the judge was lenient with him and he 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 WikiLeaks was the infamous Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 — the year of Assange’s birth — had published the Pentagon Papers. Assange has described WikiLeaks as "an activist organization" whose "method is transparency," and whose "goal is justice."
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 enterprise.
Contending that the primary objective of WikiLeaks was to expose injustice wherever it might reside, Assange told potential collaborators in 2006: “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” Assange further suggested that a “social movement” to expose incriminating classified information had the potential to “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the U.S. administration.” Indeed, it has been the U.S. — rather than Russia and China — that WikiLeaks has targeted most intensively.
At a London ceremony in June 2009, Amnesty International honored Assange with its Media Award, in recognition of his expose of hundreds of recent extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya.