Editor-in-chief of the whistleblowing site Wikileaks, recipient of the Amnesty International Media Award (New Media), the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Award, and founder of the child civil rights group Pickup. As of this writing (2010) in hot water over the leak of 91,000 pages of documents concerning the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, other scoops include the film "Collateral Murder", the Guantánamo Bay Operations Manual and a large number of documents relating to Scientology.
While many hackish folks try to cultivate adventurous hobbies, adventure seems to seek Assange out. Born sometime near 1971, in Townsville, Queensland, he spent his early years on a farm on Magnetic Island, in the Coral Sea, riding his horse, exploring caves, and generally living what he terms "a Tom Sawyer existence", homeschooled and tutored by professors from the local university. Although his name is Chinese, an Anglicization of Ah Sang, he is of Scots and Irish extraction: the name derives from where he was born.
When he was eight years old, his mother remarried, and gave him a brother, but his new father turned out to be not only abusive, but a member of a bizarre cult. Fearing for the safety of her children, at eleven Julian and his mother went into hiding, ultimately moving thirty-seven times. One of these addresses was over an electronics store where Julian hung out, learning BASIC on the eight-bit machines for sale.
Computing was a solace to him: austerely removed from his personal chaos, yet counter-cultural enough to appeal to his fierce drive for personal freedom. From making simple programs on a Commodore 64, he soon progressed to cracking favorite video games. With a modem, he took the name 'Mendax', and started the hacker gang Internationial Subversives.
At sixteen, he moved out of his mothers, to join a squatter's union, and in this community, he fell in love. He married in 1989 and soon fathered a son. In 1991, he hacked into Nortel, and fell afoul of an investigation called Project Weather. For awhile, he kept his disks hidden in a beehive he maintained, and in October, he was arrested, his wife fleeing with the infant. His criminal trial resulted, at long last, in the payment of a small fine, but custody of his child had been awarded to the boy's mother, who had taken up with a dangerous character. He and his mother were convinced that Health and Community Services had made a mistake, and worked towards an investigation of their practises. In 1999, a custody agreement was made, but by then, stress had caused his hair to become prematurely grey, and soon it was entirely white.
Assange was, as the New Yorker put it, burned out. He motorcycled across Vietnam. He worked as a security consultant, developed some advanced cryptography and studied physics at the University of Melbourne. During his trial and custody battle, he'd experienced thrills and despair far beyond anything he'd ever known-- there seemed to be nothing left in the world that would hold his attention, a state detailed in his blog, in the web.archive as "IQ.org". In 2006, he wrote an essay, "Conspiracy as Governance", which analyzes authoritarian governments as a series of connected graphs, and later that year, he developed the technology which powers the Wikileaks of today.
It's become a cliche in the press to describe him as gaunt and "spectral", the product of too much time spent out of the Sun, with the demeanor of a Bond villain. In truth, he's less insectoid than his near-twin Anderson Cooper, and more of an Australian farm boy (which he is): more physically robust, his face bears scars from stinging insects (souvenirs of a time spent hiking and living on the land in Dadenong Ranges National Park), and his teeth have a look that's never known bleaching or advanced orthodontia. Still, he's well mannered in interviews, with a deep, gentle voice of implacable calm, punctuated by rare, quiet smiles. In person, he's charming and lively: women love to take care of him, and at least a few of both sexes find him hella sexy.
Whither Assange? Few people have embodied the straight-on activist as well as he has since the 1980's. With his monastic ways and total dedication to his cause of free internet journalism, he may well turn out to be another Ralph Nader (who may be a perennial indie Presidential candidate and respected political gadfly, but never has become mainstream enough to be host of, say "Nader's Consumerwatch" or run for Congress).
Still, time, especially in the British sphere of influence, has a gentling effect: it's hard to recall that Queen Victoria was once thought of as an unpopular monarch. It is even been said that if Oscar Wilde had lived to be ninety, he would have been eulogized as a genial old soul, a much-sought-after commencement speaker and op-ed writer, with the Queensbury affair a mere speed bump. We may, some years hence, tune into 'cybercorrespondant Julian Assange' on CNN, an honored eminence grise and role model for troubled youth.
Or perhaps he might overturn the whole journalistic landscape.