As Julian Assange awaits a British Supreme Court challenge to his extradition to Sweden this story looks at the early life of a computer wizard who became one of the most wanted men in the world.
Nearly two decades ago in the hills outside Melbourne Julian Assange would go to sleep in the early hours of the morning dreaming of police raids. He would hear footsteps on the driveway gravel, see shadowy figures hovering near his house, and imagine armed police bursting through his backdoor at dawn.
Photograph: Carmen Valino
He was often paranoid and exhausted, mainly because he’d been up all night hacking his way into Australian and overseas computers. His lack of sleep compounded his paranoia. He believed the police were watching him, tapping his phone and about to raid his house.
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 – they met initially on computer bulletin board systems, not in person – 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 great international acclaim in 1997. Written by Australian post-graduate student, Suelette Dreyfus, with Assange’s close co-operation, Underground lifted the lid on the exploits of this rogue sub-culture operating out of Australia’s second largest city.
Their maxim was: “Don’t damage computer systems you break into (including crashing them); don’t change the information in those systems (except for altering logs to cover your tracks); and share information.”
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.”