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Meet the man who is giving US sleepless nights

Last updated on: August 13, 2010 09:20 IST

Meet the man who is giving US sleepless nights

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Pallavi Aiyar

Julian Assange, the silver-haired, intense-eyed, editor-in-chief of the whistleblower website WikiLeaks, has stormed onto the front pages and screens of media across the world, with the release of 92,000 classified documents on the war in Afghanistan

To his admirers, Assange is a noble cyber-jedi, epitomising the classic battle of the righteous individual against the powerful institution.

But to his detractors, which include the military priesthood of NATO, he is dangerously egocentric, working to further his own, misguided agenda, regardless of whom he puts in danger in the process.

Click on NEXT to read more about the WikiLeaks founder...


Image: Wikileaks founder Julian Assange holds up a copy of the Guardian newspaper during a press conference at the Frontline Club in central London
Photographs: Andrew Winning/Reuters
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He has an encrypted personal life

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A modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel (The mysterious heroic character in Baroness Emma Orczy's classical novel by the same name), Assange is as elusive as he is sought after, with a personal life as encrypted as the virtual corridors of WikiLeaks.

The Australian-born activist carries his home in a desktop, which he stuffs into a rucksack as he zigzags around the world.

Assange's nomadism has childhood roots.

In interviews to the media, Assange said he attended 37 schools, as his mother moved around Australia with her theatre business.

More recently, Assange has been known to hole up for extended periods in East Africa, Sweden and Iceland.


Image: Assange speaks at a news conference at the Frontline Club in central London
Photographs: Andrew Winning/Reuters
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Hacking PCs since he was a teenager

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The 39-year-old has been working with computers and hacking them since he was a teenager.

From the late 1980s, he was part of a group called the International Subversives and only narrowly escaped a jail sentence in 1995 after admitting to 25 charges of hacking into computer networks, including the Canadian communications firm Nortel.

After a stint studying Physics and Mathematics at Melbourne University, Assange set up WikiLeaks in late 2006.

Envisaged as a kind of digital dropbox for whistleblowers to securely and anonymously post leaks, Assange claims the website establishes a new standard for "scientific journalism".



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Critics accuse him of sensationalism

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Just as a scientific paper requires that all the data used to inform the article be made available to the reader, journalistic writing should also divulge its source material fully, he says.

For Assange, information is the most valuable commodity available to humans and leaks are an instrument of the information war he is waging against corrupt and opaque Goliaths, be they governments or big companies.

Other than the US military, WikiLeaks has taken on everything, from the "Climategate" e-mails of the University of East Anglia, in England, to evidence of the corruption of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

Assange's critics accuse him of sensationalism and egotism.

The Afghan diaries, most recently published by WikiLeaks, for example, contain personal information about Afghan civilians who have approached Nato soldiers with information and who could now possibly be in danger of retribution by the Taliban.


Photographs: Reuters
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'I police perpetrators of crime'

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But to Assange any such casualties, while regrettable, are less important than the overall goal of his cyber insurgency: transparency and the just reform of society.

When recently asked at a TED conference about the core values that drive him, Assange replied with a maxim passed down to him by his father: "Capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture victims".

A moment's hesitation later, he added with a rakish grin, "Since I'm somewhat of a combative person, I'm not that big on the nurture. But there is another way of nurturing people, which is to police perpetrators of crime. And that is what I do."



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