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Wiki-fugitive wants you to code

Julian Assange has spent half a year as a fugitive in a London embassy. Shrugging off reports about his chronic lung infection, now his latest mission is to get individuals to adopt the use of ciphers to protect their privacy, writes Decca Aitkenhead.

world Updated: Dec 09, 2012 02:15 IST

The Ecuadorian embassy in London looks rather lavish from the street, but inside it's not much bigger than a family apartment. Christmas shoppers heading for Harrods next door bustle by, oblivious to the fact they pass within feet of one of the world's most famous fugitives.

It's almost six months since Julian Assange took refuge in the embassy. A state of affairs that was at first sensational is slowly becoming surreal. Ecuador has granted its guest formal asylum. But the WikiLeaks founder can't get to Harrods, let alone South America, because the moment he leaves the embassy, he will be arrested and extradited to Sweden to face allegations of rape.

Assange says he'll happily go to Stockholm, providing the Swedish government guarantees he won't be extradited to the United States. Stockholm says that decision would lie with the courts. So the weeks have stretched into months, and may stretch into years.

When Assange appears, he seems more like an in-patient than an interviewee, his opening words slow and hesitant, the voice so cracked as to be barely audible. If you have ever visited someone convalescing after a breakdown, his demeanour would be instantly recognisable.

Assange tells me he sees visitors most days. He shrugs off reports of a chronic lung infection. "I suppose it's quite nice, though, actually, that people are worried about me."

He spent 10 days in jail in December 2010, before being bailed to a home in Suffolk. He was free to come and go in daylight hours, but felt more in captivity then than he does now. "I had an electronic manacle around my leg for 24 hours a day, and for someone who has tried to give others liberty all their adult life, that is absolutely intolerable."

And now he is the author of a new book, Cypherpunks: Freedom And The Future Of The Internet. Based on conversations with three other cypherpunks — internet activists fighting for online privacy — it warns we are sleepwalking towards a "new transnational dystopia". "The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen" - and its target audience anyone who has ever gone online or used a mobile phone.

"The last 10 years have seen a revolution in interception technology, where we have gone from tactical interception to strategic interception," he explains.

"Tactical interception is the one that we are all familiar with, where particular individuals become of interest to the state or its friends. Their phones are intercepted, their email communication is intercepted, their friends are intercepted, and so on. We've gone from that situation to strategic interception, where everything flowing out of or into a country — and for some countries domestically as well — is intercepted and stored permanently."

The change is partly down to economics: interception costs have been halving every two years. "A kit produced in South Africa can store and index all telecommunications traffic in and out of a medium-sized nation for $10 million a year."

"The penetration of the Stasi in East Germany is reported to be up to 10% of the population - but the penetration of Facebook in Iceland is 88%, and those people are informing much more frequently and in much more detail than they ever were in the Stasi. And they're not even getting paid to do it! So we're now in this unique position where we have all the ingredients for a turnkey totalitarian state."

Assange sees only one way to protect ourselves: cryptography.

"A well-defined mathematical algorithm can encrypt something quickly, but to decrypt it would take billions of years - or trillions of dollars' worth of electricity to drive the computer. So cryptography is the essential building block of independence for organisations on the internet. There is no other way for our intellectual life to gain proper independence from the security guards of the world, the people who control physical reality."

"It's all about power," he replies. "And accountability. The greater the power, the more need there is for transparency, because if the power is abused, the result can be so enormous. On the other hand, those people who do not have power, we mustn't reduce their power even more by making them yet more transparent."

Assange himself is immensely powerful, and should be held to a higher standard of accountability and transparency. "I think that is correct," he agrees. So was WikiLeaks' decision to publish Afghan informers' names unredacted an abuse of power? Assange lets rip. "This is absurd propaganda. There has been no official accusation that any of our publications over a six-year period have resulted in the deaths of a single person - a single person."

Has he considered the possibility that he might live in this embassy for the rest of his life. "I've considered the possibility. But it sure beats supermax [maximum security prison]."

But it has all been worth it, he says, because of what he's achieved.

"Changes in electoral outcomes, contributions to revolutions in the Middle East, and the knowledge that we have contributed towards the Iraqi people and the Afghan people. And also the end of the Iraq war, which we had an important contribution towards. You can look that up. The documents we'd published directly were cited by Iraqis as a reason for discontinuing the immunity [for US soldiers]. And the US said it would refuse to stay without continued immunity." GNS