He has been called "the Robin Hood of hacking." As the founder and public face of WikiLeaks, a website that posts secret documents and information in the public domain, Julian Assange (pronounced Ah-Sanj) believes that total transparency is for the good of all people. But Assange who reportedly lives an itinerant existence, traveling the world with a backpack and computer is himself a shadowy figure. Little is known about his life: he has refused to confirm his age in interviews or give a fixed address. But on July 26, the mathematically-trained Australian changed the media landscape and possibly the course of history by releasing about 90,000 classified U.S. military records from the war in Afghanistan.
Assange was reportedly born in 1971 in the city of Townsville, northeastern Australia. He was mostly homeschooled as a child, thanks in large part to his already peripatetic existence: by the time he was 14, he and his mother had reportedly moved 37 times.
After his mother's relationship with a musician turned violent, Assange lived on the run between the ages of 11 and 16.
When Assange turned 16, he began hacking computers, reportedly assuming the name Mendax from the Latin splendide mendax, or "nobly untruthful."
In 1991, at the age of 20, Assange and some fellow hackers broke into the master terminal of Nortel, the Canadian telecom company. He was caught and pleaded guilty to 25 charges; six other charges were dropped. Citing Assange's "intelligent inquisitiveness," the judge sentenced him only to pay the Australian state a small sum in damages.
Assange studied math and physics at the University of Melbourne, though he dropped out when he became convinced that work by others in the department was being applied by defense contractors and militaries.
In 2006, Assange decided to found WikiLeaks in the belief that the free exchange of information would put an end to illegitimate governance. The website publishes material from sources, and houses its main server in Sweden, which has strong laws protecting whistle-blowers. Assange and others at WikiLeaks also occasionally hack into secure systems to find documents to expose. In December 2006, the website published its first document: a decision by the Somali Islamic Courts Union that called for the execution of government officials. WikiLeaks published a disclaimer that the document may not be authentic but "a clever smear by U.S. intelligence."
The website went on to get several prominent scoops, including the release in April 2010 of a secret video taken in 2007 of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed a dozen civilians, including two unarmed Reuters journalists. Assange helped post the video from a safe house in Iceland that he and the other WikiLeaks administrators called "the bunker."