Julian Assange has led a life that could easily go down in history alongside Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The difference for Assange is that his life is very much the work of reality, and his story is still ongoing.
Born Julian Paul Hawkins in Queensland, Australia, in 1971, Julian Assange has spent his life working as a computer programmer. With his expertise, he founded a non-profit website called ‘WikiLeaks’ in 2006, and fast gained notoriety.
The idea of the site was to publish secret information, classified media and news leaks from anonymous sources in order to gain transparency and visibility to the issues and events in question. Since its launch, its database now contains over 10 million documents - and has also been responsible for some notable and prominent releases, including documentation regarding the Afghanistan war, corruption investigations in Kenya, classified CIA document releases, and the infamous leaks published thanks to Chelsea Manning in 2010.
Through WikiLeaks, Assange hoped to ensure that lies could be exposed and that there would be greater freedom of information globally. It has seen him win many accolades, but has also led to him becoming a targeted and very vulnerable figure at the same time.
Not many people and organisations like having their privacy violated in such an unguarded way, and there have been a lot of calls that such publication of information is a threat to both national security and the security of individuals involved. There have been many questions over whether or not this information should be in the public domain, and what benefit it actually holds for it to be revealed so transparently to all and sundry.
Allegations and arrests
Is Julian Assange a hero for his part in this, or actually a villain? In November 2010, it was requested that Assange be extradited to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault and rape. Assange fervently denied this and expressed belief that he would be then extradited from Sweden to the United States to face prosecution for his role in publishing top secret government documents.
After spending ten days in solitary confinement in a UK prison when he voluntarily surrendered himself, Assange breached his bail and absconded. Ecuador granted him asylum in August 2012, and he has lived in the Embassy of Ecuador in London since then. Although he can leave at any time, if he should do so, he will be arrested for breaching his bail conditions.
His patience has finally served him some benefits. In May 2017, the investigation into the rape accusations concerning Assange were dropped by Swedish prosecutors. They also applied to revoke the warrant out for his arrest. It is small steps towards freedom, though, as the UK police still have an arrest warrant out for Assange due to his failure to surrender to a British court.
Blazing the trail
Assange has been the source of much interest and fascination for many, especially during his time at the embassy. Shot over five years, Laura Poitras (who produced the 2014 documentary about Edward Snowden, another whistleblower) has even produced a documentary about Assange. It shows Assange to be paranoid and yet pragmatic; thirsty for power, yet restrained by his position.
In a time when computer hacking is becoming far more commonplace and everything from elections to key events are being influenced by hacking scandals, Assange is becoming less of an anomaly and more part of the tidal surge towards exposing the truth, no matter the cost.
Unlike these hacking scandals, however, WikiLeaks operates on information and documents being provided by anonymous sources - many of whom are inside whistleblowers. It’s less about breaking into information illegally and without any collaboration, and instead about giving it a platform to breathe and talk.
Additionally, there’s no ransomware costs attached to these documents. Unlike some of the hacking that has been done for personal financial gain, WikiLeaks is not operating self-servingly. It seeks to create change globally, for a greater good, rather than to finance itself into profit.
In many respects, Assange is blinkered in his approach to finding transparency. It’s also not entirely clear who he is in cahoots with, and what influence other countries and organisations are having over WikiLeaks.
In a time of alternative facts and fake news, there’s also a great deal of insecurity over what information is true nowadays and what is fabricated to create bias or establish an agenda. There’s also speculation over why Russia seems to be waging an information war on the West, and yet nothing is being retaliated on the country by WikiLeaks. Who is the enemy for Assange, and how long will public opinion keep supporting him, when they realise he may well be working against them? For many years he has been the hero, but this could all easily change.