Julian Assange is the founder of the website “WikiLeaks” that began in 2006 with the purpose of publishing censored data involving war, spying, and corruption. He is Australian born and has had a history of hacking since 1987 when he began infiltrating systems in Europe, Canada, and North America, including the U.S Department of Defense under the alias “Mendax”. (Khatchadourian, “No Secrets”)
He was prosecuted in 1991 for hacking the telecommunications company Nortel. He was charged with over 30 counts of hacking in Australia but only paid a small fine for damages. (Biography.com, “Julian Assange Biography”)
Some of the most controversial publishing by WikiLeaks include war footage in Iraq and Afghanistan showing US military involvement in civilian deaths. Julian Assange obtained this information through Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) who was a US Army Intelligence Officer that was responsible for giving WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of classified documents. (Biography.com, “Chelsea Manning Biography”)
In 2013 Chelsea Manning was sentenced in Army Court of violating the Espionage Act, committing computer fraud and theft, then sentenced to 35 years in prison. However, Manning was found not guilty of aiding the enemy under 10 U.S Code § 904 which lists the death penalty as a possible punishment.
This raises the question of what Julian Assange could be charged with by the US. Unlike Manning, Assange is not a US citizen so he cannot be charged with treason but if the US could extradite him from the Ecuadorian embassy in London where he is currently seeking asylum, they could prosecute him under 18 USC § 1030: Fraud and Related Activity in Connection with Computers Act. This act criminalizes the obtaining of undisclosed data that could injure the US by an unauthorized individual and transmits it to another individual, nation, etc. that is not entitled to see it. (Curtis 30)
Though Assange claims WikiLeaks is merely acting as a watch dog against corruption, it is giving out information never meant to be seen by the general public. Despite the site’s best intentions it is still accessed by nations around the globe and is a source of intelligence for military and business. In that sense it is aiding another nation whether it wants to or not.
Due to this he can be both charged with conspiracy to commit espionage and violating the Espionage Act. Another issue comes up though, is Assange protected under the 1st Amendment as a journalist? This would mean that prosecutors would have to prove that Assange released confidential US documents in an attempt to injure the US. (Dedman, “U.S. v. WikiLeaks”)
The fact that Assange held onto the Podesta emails until publishing them to WikiLeaks on October 7th, very close to the US presidential election can be interpreted that he may have wanted to harm the US or at least interfere with the election. Assange stated this in a blog post in 2006:
“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.” (Greenberg, “Julian Assange’s Endgame”)
This statement gives a bit of insight into Assange’s mindset and intentions of publishing secret information in an attempt to weaken organizations.
His claims of hacking into the US Justice Department in 1991 when he was 16 in Australia are also prosecutable if any evidence is found for it under 18 U.S.C. § 1030: The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which includes individuals of a foreign country. Also to note is he said he had formed a hacking group to carry out these hacks together, making him also able to be charged under 18 U.S.C. § 371: The Conspiracy Statute. (Curtis 359)
The prosecution of cybercrimes committed by a foreign entity is extremely challenging for many reasons. Perhaps one of the biggest issues is foreign relations; countries like Russia, Cuba, and China are going to be less willing to work with US authorities because of political issues, not to mention many countries are not equipped with the resources to help prosecute cybercrimes. To actually prosecute someone you need to physically detain them in US custody which can be challenging, if not impossible when countries have no extradition treaty with the US.
The use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and TOR (The Onion Router) adds an additional level of difficulty for prosecutors. These networks provide anonymization of IP addresses, browser configurations, OS type, and other identifying information given to a server when accessed. Many hackers choose to use VPNs that do not keep logs or are not willing to work with US authorities. TOR routes traffic through multiple nodes (servers) before it gets to its destination, meaning that without a zero day exploit against the TOR browser bundle or access to all nodes it is impossible to find a cybercriminal’s location. Also on this network are .onion top level domains that are hidden and can contain various illegal materials on them such as child pornography and black marketplaces.
In the case of Assange, the Ecuadorian government has no extradition treaty with the US, Sweden, or Britain and shows no signs of giving him up because they believe he will be eventually extradited to the US where he may face the death penalty. Assange’s most serious sexual assault case will pass the statue of limitations in 2020 so he may be trying to wait out that charge and also waiting for the US presidential elect to take office so he can pardon him. It can be argued that the emails leaked from the DNC and Podesta may have won the election for Donald Trump so he may be expecting some form of gratitude in the form of a pardon.
Biography.com. “Julian Assange Biography.” Biography. A&E Television Networks, 12 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Biography.com. “Chelsea Manning Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, 06 July 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
Curtis, George E. The Law of Cybercrimes and Their Investigations. Boca Raton: CRC, 2012. Print.
Dedman, Bill. “U.S. v. WikiLeaks.” NBC News. NBC News, 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Greenberg, Andy. “Want to Know Julian Assange’s Endgame? He Told You a Decade Ago.” Wired. N.p., 14 Oct. 2016. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.
Khatchadourian, Raffi. “No Secrets.” The New Yorker. N.p., 7 June 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2016.