Secrecy at the heart of Assange's world

Reuters

Posted at Nov 02 2011 11:22 PM | Updated as of Nov 03 2011 07:31 AM

LONDON, England - A computer hacker who has spent much of his life on the road, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a champion of free speech who has paradoxically fought demands to be more open about his own personal life and financial affairs.

The 40-year-old Australian has made powerful enemies: governments whose secret information he has revealed by publishing hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables as well as former colleagues he has alienated.

London's High Court ruled on Wednesday that Assange should be extradited to Sweden for questioning over alleged sex crimes after accusations by two former WikiLeaks volunteers in 2010.

Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt had damaged Assange's chances of a fair trial by portraying him as "public enemy number one", a lawyer for Assange said in February.

Divisive figure

Like the WikiLeaks site itself, Assange has proved a divisive figure. Some see him as a hero, challenging censorship and the harbinger of a new age of openness. Others see him as a dangerous radical, wrecking the secretive norms of diplomacy, revealing what should not be revealed.

While preaching the need for official openness, Assange is known for being highly secretive about himself.

He tried to suppress publication of his own autobiography earlier this year after falling out with a Scottish publisher midway through a $1 million deal.

Nick Davies, publishing director of Canongate, said Assange felt the book was "too personal" and that Assange himself had later declared: "All memoir is prostitution."

Assange has found his relations with women exposed to public scrutiny this year as he fights extradition proceedings.

At one hearing, a defence lawyer said he did not dispute that the two women in the case found Assange's "sexual behaviour in these encounters disreputable, discourteous, disturbing or even pushing towards the boundaries of what they were comfortable with".

But he reiterated the sexual activities that occurred had taken place with consent and, unlike in Sweden, could not be criminalised under English law.

Born in July 1971 in Townsville on Australia's Queensland coast, Assange has rarely had a fixed base, but over the past year, he has lived at an English country house owned by a backer under strict bail conditions imposed last December.

Uncertain future

In his teens, he gained a reputation as a sophisticated computer programmer before being arrested in 1995 and pleading guilty to hacking. He avoided prison on condition he did not re-offend and in his late 20s went to Melbourne University to study mathematics and physics.

He founded WikiLeaks in 2006, creating a web-based "dead letter drop" for would-be leakers.

Assange says he never wanted to become the public face of WikiLeaks. Initially, he says, his plan was that the organisation had no public face at all "because I wanted egos to play no part in activities".

But he said this changed after random individuals on the Internet claiming to represent the group.

Before last year's leaks, WikiLeaks had some five full-time staff, several dozen volunteers and 800 part-time volunteers.

Assange said its cables had helped to spark this year's Arab Spring uprisings by exposing corruption in a number of Middle East and north African countries.

But the site, like its founder, faces an uncertain future.

Assange said last month it needed $3.5 million over the next year to continue operating after credit card companies Visa and MasterCard stopped processing its donations last year.

A key technical component of the website was reportedly disabled months earlier.

Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a German activist who Assange had fired as a frontman, and a German computer technician, known as "The Architect", who had helped engineer an allegedly ultra-secure "submission mechanism", seized the system, according to an account by Domscheit-Berg in a memoir published this year.

Once this system was disabled, leakers were blocked from using the principal method of sending material to WikiLeaks, though some people close to Assange have said he continued to receive leaked material by hand and through the mail.

Meanwhile, Assange released his entire stash of U.S. diplomatic cables on WikiLeaks without deletions of sensitive information and tried to blame this on journalists at the Guardian, the London newspaper which once had been one of WikiLeaks most important media partners.

After this, and with its submission system crippled, WikiLeaks releases of new material appeared to dry up almost completely, a state of play which Assange confirmed when he formally announced last month that the website was "temporarily" suspending its publishing activities.

Assange has said the website is working on a new submission system which he claimed would soon be back on line. But with his immediate personal future more uncertain than ever and lustre wearing off his supposed technical prowess, a WikiLeaks renaissance may prove problematic.