Wikileaks founder, "hacktivist" and whistleblower, Julian Assange is no stranger to the criminal justice system.
By age 16, he had become a skilled hacker and the home he shared with his single mother was raided following a report to police that he had been complicit in stealing $500,000 from Citibank, but he was never charged.
Assange seemed to work within a self-imposed set of strict ethical guidelines where he did not damage or crash the systems he hacked, instead, seeking information to assuage his self-attributed motivation of power. Knowledge is power, after all.
When he was 20, the Australian Federal Police had him on their radar, setting up an investigation into the hacking group he and two others had set up called The International Subversives. His phone was tapped, his home was raided again and in 1994 he was charged with hacking and fraudulent use of the telecommunications network.
While he pled guilty, he was not sentenced to prison, instead being burdened with a $2100 fine and a good behaviour bond, largely due to his lack of mercenary or malicious intent.
But not all of his work involved raging against the machine. In 1993, he supported the VicPol Child Exploitation Unit to prosecute those responsible for publishing and distributing child pornography.
But his main driver seemed to be fighting government corruption and perceived injustice, drawing attention to developments like the NSW patenting a voice-data harvesting technology, and when he set up Wikileaks in 2006, he prefaced its launch with a five-page essay defining Wikileaks' purpose as "us[ing] leaks to force organisations to reduce levels of abuse and dishonesty or pay a 'secrecy tax' to be secret but inefficient."
Reportedly, Wikileaks represented itself as a professional, journalistic media project and forged positive relationships with both British and European press. Collaborations with major newspapers like the Sunday Times added to Wikileaks' credibility and Assange has won various awards for his work in this space including the 2009 Amnesty International New Media Award.
Wikileaks obtained and published information with Assange describing himself as a "conduit". His publications included information that had been requested under the US' Freedom of Information Act by media outlets, but had been denied such as video footage of a Baghdad airstrike conducted on July 12, 2007, showing US soldiers fatally shooting 18 civilians from a helicopter; reports into corruption that have been prevented from being published due to an injunction granted to those named in the report; and Iraq war logs encompassing over 390,000 field reports that chronicle alleged war crimes, provided by former US Army soldier, Chelsea Manning.
I've always found the crimes of espionage and theft/distribution of government documents to be somewhat hypocritical. Darian Pun has pointed out that on the one hand, when it is undertaken by your own country under the guise of national security, it's considered necessary.
But when it's conducted by foreign nations, or entities other than the home-country and its agencies, it is criminalised. The line between espionage and whistleblowing is notoriously fine and seems to fluctuate according to who is involved and what the political climate is at the time.
The Revised Explanatory Memorandum for the Criminal Code Amendment (Espionage and Related Matters) Bill 2002 (Cth) identifies the rationale behind the 2002 changes to the Australian espionage offences as being "to better deter and punish those who intended to betray Australia's security interests," while the 2018 amendments sought to expand these new offences under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, in light of the earlier iteration failing to bring about successful prosecution of a single case.
But what are Australia's security interests?
Is it in our security interests to cover up corruption? To conceal war crimes? To bury immoral political activity and decision-making, corporate connections and military actions?
This is a complex question, but it doesn't feel like it should be. After all, when the surveillance of the Australian people is continuously increasing, political corruption is revealed as rife, and questions of alleged war crimes on the battlefield are being suppressed, it seems that the government's argument, "if you've got nothing to hide, what are you worried about?" isn't meant to be apply to everyone.
Legal, ethical and moral complexities appear to clash head on in cases like this. While technically the theft and disclosure of government documents is a crime, how are governments to be held to account for fraudulent, criminal and damaging activities if evidence cannot be legally produced?
- Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au, and a regular columnist for ACM.