The world's best-known 'cypherpunk' has long been on a mission to stop governments watching our every move. It is said to be the key to understanding WikiLeaks.

Although there are tens of thousands of articles on Julian Assange in the world's newspapers and magazines, no mainstream journalist so far has grasped the critical significance of the cypherpunks movement to Assange's intellectual development and the origin of WikiLeaks.

The cypherpunks emerged from a meeting of minds in late 1992 in the Bay Area of San Francisco.

Its founders were Eric Hughes, a brilliant Berkeley mathematician; Timothy C. May, an already wealthy former chief scientist at Intel who had retired at the age of 34; and John Gilmore, another already retired and wealthy computer scientist - once number five at Sun Microsystems - who had co-founded an organisation to advance the cause of cyberspace freedom, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

They created a small group, which met monthly in Gilmore's office. At one of the early meetings of the group, an editor at Mondo 2000, Jude Milhon, jokingly called them cypherpunks, a play on cyberpunk, the "high-tech, low-life" science-fiction genre. The name stuck.

It soon referred to a vibrant emailing list, created shortly after the first meeting.

At the core of the cypherpunk philosophy was the belief that the great question of politics in the age of the internet was whether the state would strangle individual freedom and privacy through its capacity for electronic surveillance or whether autonomous individuals would eventually undermine and even destroy the state through their deployment of electronic weapons newly at hand.

Many cypherpunks were optimistic that the individual would ultimately triumph. Their optimism was based on developments in intellectual history and computer software: the invention in the mid-1970s of public-key cryptography by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, and the creation by Phil Zimmerman in the early 1990s of a program known as PGP, "Pretty Good Privacy".

PGP democratised their invention and provided individuals, free of cost, access to public-key cryptography - and thus the capacity to communicate with others in near-perfect privacy.

At the time the cypherpunks formed, the US Government strongly opposed the free circulation of public-key cryptography. It feared making it available would strengthen the hands of the espionage agencies of America's enemies abroad and of terrorists, organised criminals, drug dealers and pornographers at home.

One of the key projects of the cypherpunks was "remailers", software that made it impossible for governments to trace the passage from sender to receiver. Another key project was "digital cash", a means of disguising financial transactions.

Almost all cypherpunks were anarchists who regarded the state as the enemy. Most but not all were anarchists of the right, or in US parlance, libertarians, who supported laissez-faire capitalism.

The most authoritative political voice among the majority libertarian cypherpunks was Tim May, who, in 1994, composed a vast, truly remarkable document, Cyphernomicon.

May thought the state to be the source of evil in history.

Assange joined the cypherpunks email list in late 1995. There were many reasons he was likely to be attracted to them. Even before his arrest (for alleged hacking) he had feared the intrusion into his life of the totalitarian surveillance state.

Assange believed that he had been wrongly convicted of what he called a "victimless crime". The struggle against victimless crimes - the right to consume pornography, to communicate in cyberspace anonymously, to distribute cryptographic software freely - was at the centre of the cypherpunks' political agenda.

Moreover the atmosphere of the list was freewheeling - racism, sexism, homophobia were common.

Cypherpunks saw themselves as Silicon Valley Masters of the Universe. It must have been more than a little gratifying for a self-educated antipodean computer hacker, who had not even completed high school, to converse on equal terms with professors of mathematics, whiz-kid businessmen and some of the leading computer code-writers in the world.

Assange contributed to the cypherpunks list from December 1995 until June 2002. Almost all his interventions have been placed on the internet. On the basis of what historians call primary evidence, the mind and character of Assange can be seen at the time of his obscurity. The first thing that becomes clear is the brashness. Over a technical dispute, he writes: "Boy are you a dummy."

When someone asks for assistance in compiling a public list of hackers with handles, names, email addresses, Assange responds: "Are you on this list of morons?"

In a dispute over religion and intolerance, one cypherpunk had written: "Because those being hatefully intolerant have the 'right' beliefs as to what the Bible says. Am I a racist if I don't also include an example from the Koran?"

"No, just an illiterate," Assange replied.

If one thing is clear from the cypherpunks list, it is that the young Assange did not suffer those he regarded as fools gladly. Some posts reflect his faith in the theory of evolution. Assange forwarded an article about the role played by the CIA in supplying crack gangs in Los Angeles. A cypherpunk responded: "I wish they'd get back to the business, but add an overt poison to the product. Clean out the shit from the cities. Long live Darwinism."

"Darwinism is working as well as it ever was. You may not like it but shit is being selected for," Assange shot back.

Other posts reflect his recent life experiences. Assange had helped Victoria police break a paedophile ring in 1993. On the cypherpunks list, he defended the circulation of child pornography on the internet on the grounds that it would cut the need for new production and make it easier for police to capture paedophiles.

In another post, he expressed deep anger at perceived injustice regarding those with whom he identifies - convicted hackers.

One, Tsutomu Shimamura, had not only played a role in the hunting down of a notorious American fellow-hacker, Kevin Mitnick, but had even co-authored a book about it, Takedown. "This makes me ill. Tsutomu, when Mitnick cracks, will you dig up his grave and rent his hands out as ashtrays?"

Assange also posted on the reports of violence against another hacker, Ed Cummings, also known as Bernie S, imprisoned in the US. "I was shocked. I've had some dealings with the SS ... Those that abuse their power and inflict grave violence on others must be held accountable and their crimes deplored and punished in the strongest manner. Failure to do so merely creates an environment where such behaviour becomes predominant."

Where did Assange stand with regard to the radical cypherpunks agenda of Tim May? Assange was, if anything, even more absolute and extreme.

In September 1996, Esther Dyson, the chair of the lobby group for freedom in cyberspace, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as being in favour of certain extremely limited restrictions on internet anonymity.

On the cypherpunks list, a furious controversy, called "the Esther Dyson Fuss", broke out. Some cypherpunks defended Dyson, saying she had every right to argue a more nuanced position and it was healthy for individuals to speak their mind. May disagreed vehemently.

Assange went further. "Examining in detail Dyson's interests, it appears she maintains a sizeable and longstanding interest in East European technology companies. She is also very far to the right of the political spectrum (rampant capitalist would be putting it mildly). She also speaks Russian.

"I'm not saying she's been working for the CIA for the past decade, but I would be very surprised if the CIA has not exerted quite significant pressure ... in order to bring her into their folds."

"At least you don't accuse me of being a communist," Dyson responded. "I am not a tool of the CIA nor have they pressured me, but there's no reason for you to believe me."

When Assange was in trouble last year, she wrote a piece on the Salon website arguing that even unpleasant characters need to be defended.

From beginning to end Assange was, in short, a hardline member of the tendency among the cypherpunks that Tim May called the "rejectionists" - an enemy of those who displayed even the slightest tendency to compromise on the question of Big Brother and the surveillance state. On another question, however, Assange was at the opposite end of the cypherpunks spectrum from May.

At no stage did Assange show sympathy for the anarcho-capitalism of the cypherpunks mainstream.

In October 1996, a prominent cypherpunk, Duncan Frissell, claimed that in the previous fiscal year the US Government had seized more tax than any Government in history. Assange pointed out that, as the US was the world's largest economy and that its GDP had grown in the previous year, this was a ridiculous statement and deceptive.

In October 2001, Declan McCullagh expressed "surprise" when a "critique of laissez-faire capitalism" appeared on the cypherpunks list "of all places". Assange replied: "Declan, Declan. Put away your straw man ... Nobel economic laureates have been telling us for years to be careful about idealised market models This years [sic] Nobel for Economics won by George A. Akerlof, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E.Stiglitz 'for their analysis of markets with assymmetric [sic] information' is typical.

"You don't need a Nobel to realise that the relationship between a large employer and employee is brutally assymmetric [sic] ... To counter this sort of assymetery. [sic] Employees naturally start trying to collectivise to increase their information processing and bargaining power. That's right. UNIONS Declan."

Assange was, then, an absolutist crypto-anarchist but one who leaned decidedly to the left. There is also evidence he was increasingly repelled by the corrosive cynicism common in cypherpunks ranks.

From 1997 to 2002 Assange accompanied all his cypherpunks postings with this beautiful passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupery. "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Another time, a cypherpunk suggested that in the great struggle for privacy and against censorship ordinary people could not give a damn. In what was one of his final cypherpunks postings, Assange responded: "The 95 per cent of the population which comprise the flock have never been my target and neither should they be yours; it's the 2.5 per cent at either end of the normal that I find in my sights, one to be cherished and the other to be destroyed."

Increasingly, Assange began to mock Tim May.

Many thought of May as an antisemite, with good reason. In November 2001, when May used a quote from a cypherpunk fellow traveller, David Friedman, Assange emailed: "Quoting Jews again, Tim?"

Assange was a regular contributor to the cypherpunks mailing list, particularly before its decline in late 1997 after a meltdown over the question of the possible moderation of the list - censorship! - and the departure of John Gilmore.

The cypherpunks list clearly mattered to him deeply. Shortly before his travels in 1998, Assange asked whether anyone could send him a complete archive of the list between 1992 and the present.

While commentators have failed to see the significance of the cypherpunks in shaping the thought of Assange, this is something insiders to the movement understand. When Jeanne Whalen from the Wall Street Journal approached John Young, of Cryptome, in August last year, he advised her to read the Assange cypherpunk postings he had just placed on the internet, and also Tim May's Cyphernomicon.

"This background has not been explored in the WikiLeaks saga. And WikiLeaks cannot be understood without it."

Likewise, in his mordant online article on WikiLeaks and Assange, the influential cyberpunk novelist and author of The Hacker Crackdown, Bruce Sterling wrote: "At last - at long last - the homemade nitroglycerin in the old cypherpunks blast shack has gone off."

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