He is arguably the most infamous man in the world, but little is known about Australian Julian Assange. David Leser looks at the subversive’s youth and tells the story of a boy who has only ever known life on the run.
Nearly two decades ago in the hills outside Melbourne Julian Assange would go to sleep in the early hours of the morning exhausted and paranoid, mainly because he’d been up all night hacking his way into Australian and overseas computers.
His lack of sleep only compounded his paranoia. He believed the police were watching him, tapping his phone and about to come knocking. He was dead right about that.
In late October 1991, this 20-year-old computer wizard was a key member of an elite underground movement in Melbourne known as International Subversives, arguably the most sophisticated hacking group on the planet.
Comprising three brilliant, obsessive young men from dysfunctional family backgrounds, the group had managed to break into some of the most secure networks in the world, including NASA, the Naval Surface Warfare Centre in Virginia and the Pentagon itself.
We know this because Julian Assange was to tell us himself six years later in a book called Underground: Tales Of Hacking, Madness And Obsession On The Electronic Frontier, published to considerable acclaim in 1997. Written by Australian post-graduate student Suelette Dreyfus, with Assange’s close cooperation, Underground lifted the lid on the exploits of this rogue sub-culture operating out of Australia’s second largest city.
The book, in part a ghost-written autobiography of Assange’s early life, never actually revealed the names of the Melbourne hackers, but rather online nicknames such as Phoenix, Electron, Prime Suspect, Trax and Mendax.
Court documents and biographical details on the WikiLeaks website would later show that Mendax was none other than Julian Assange. He’d chosen his moniker from Horace’s splendide mendax, meaning "nobly untruthful."
By October 1991, International Subversives had come under Australian Federal Police surveillance. Two years earlier the US Space agency, NASA, had been attacked by a computer worm just as the Atlantis space shuttle was about to be launched towards Jupiter.
Although the culprits were never found, Underground revealed that the worm had emerged from the shadowlands of this Melbourne hacking community and was, in part, a typically Australian act of defiance against large institutions.
On October 29, 1991, there was a loud knock at Julian Assange’s door.
"Go away," he yelled, thinking it was a friend.
"Police. Open the door. NOW."
Assange did as he was told and there at the door was his nightmare made manifest: a dozen plain-clothed policemen. "I don’t believe this," he told them. "My wife just left me. Can’t you come back later?"
Assange’s 18-year-old wife had, indeed, just left him a few days earlier, taking with her their infant son, Daniel, as well as clothes, furniture and the CD player she’d given him a few months earlier for his 20th birthday.
Julian Assange was heartbroken and had barely slept or eaten for days. He was quite clearly a nervous wreck.
"I think you’ve been expecting me," Ken Day, the head of the Australian Federal Police’s investigation task force, told him at the door.
Normally Assange kept his floppy disks (as they were in those days) in a place no one would dream of looking — inside a beehive. An enthusiastic apiarist, he enjoyed observing the highly intricate ways in which bees socially interacted. He also thought that if he was ever in the possession of stolen computer account passwords no one would find them there.
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