Some people have called him an anarchist, which he denies. Assange prefers to be called a libertarian, and believes that the only people who can adequately police the system are those on the inside who are in a position to notice the abuse and blow the whistle. While most reporters pride themselves in gathering information and interpreting it for a larger audience, the WikiLeaks model is different - it prefers to take raw data, make it available and let others decide the meaning.
Regardless of whether you agree with this idea or not, it beats close to the heart of the Internet, and a younger generation, and it runs through the life of Assange.
Kroft: You obviously have a mistrust of authority. Where does that come from?
Assange: I think it comes from experience with various types of authorities.
Assange gave us an example from his childhood, a story about him and his mother Christine, who was present at one of his recent court hearings. She was a political activist who helped scientists gather information about nuclear tests conducted by the British in the Australian outback. He remembers them being stopped late one night and questioned by authorities, one of whom said:
Assange: Look lady, you're out at two o'clock in the morning with this child…it could be suggested that you're an unfit mother. I suggest you stay out of politics. And which she did for the next ten years in order to make sure nothing happened to me. So that's a very early abuse of power and the secrecy that I saw in my life.
His was an unconventional and sometimes tumultuous childhood in which he was frequently uprooted and moved around the countryside. He attended 37 different schools.
Kroft: So you've always been a little bit of an outsider?
Assange: I've certainly, when I was a child, going from one school to another, you are the outsider to begin with and you have to find your way in. But in most of the places where I stayed long enough, I did find my way in.
One of the first places Assange found his way into was populated by teenagers and computers. And he knew how to program them before most people had them.
Kroft: You got involved with computers pretty early? With hacking?
Assange: Well, I first became involved with computers when I was 13 or so. And I was unusually adept and I saw a sort of intellectual opportunity understanding how to program, understanding how these complex machines work. And that was part of a social culture in cracking codes to prove that you could do it. And this is something that is very actually normal and healthy amongst young men. You see it in skateboarders competing to show that they are capable in learning the best tricks.
Kroft: And your tricks were like breaking into computers at the Department of Defense and Los Alamos National Laboratory, NASA and NORTEL, some Canadian banks.
Assange: Yeah. All that happened.
At age 20, Assange was arrested by the Australian Federal Police and eventually pled guilty to multiple counts of computer hacking. He managed to get off with no jail time because the judge concluded Assange hadn't stolen any information or done any damage.
Kroft: Is that still one of your skills?
Assange: Not really. Unfortunately, I've been sort of, you know, promoted up into management, so I don't get to do that so much. But I know the terrain which means I know what is possible. I mean, Bill Gates could program but he certainly doesn't program anymore. But he knows what is possible for other people to do.
Except that Assange is not Bill Gates and WikiLeaks is not Microsoft. The shoestring operation that created all the havoc has no permanent offices and is headquartered wherever Assange happens to be. WikiLeaks is a small non-profit organization with a handful of anonymous employees, a secret cadre of international programmers, and a legion of worldwide volunteers.