WikiLeaks' Julian Assange Isn't Dead, Just Offline

A series of mysterious tweets from WikiLeaks led to rumors founder Julian Assange had died, but WikiLeaks maintained that his Internet connection was cut off.

Published Oct 17, 2016

On 16 October 2016, WikiLeaks posted a series of cryptic numeric tweets, leading many onlookers to conclude that founder Julian Assange was in danger and likely dead (and thus a dead man's switch had been activated):

The appearance of the tweeted sequences of digits led to rampant rumors Assange had been threatened, a circumstance that activated a protocol for Assange's safety that was reported in 2010:

Supporters of WikiLeaks around the world are downloading a file the site calls an insurance policy. The files are encrypted with a code so strong it's unbreakable, even by governments. If anything happens to Assange or the website, a key will go out to unlock the files. There would then be no way to stop the information from spreading like wildfire because so many people already have copies. "What most folks are speculating is that the insurance file contains unreleased information that would be especially embarrassing to the U.S. government if it were released," said Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent for CNET, a CBS company.

Not long after the mysterious tweets appeared in October 2016, a Twitter account associated with Anonymous asserted that they were not indicative of harm coming to Assange — he was presumably, fine and the tweets were a form of data integrity verification:

A Gizmodo article described the series of tweets and their less ominous potential purpose:

Much as these tweets provide great fodder for conspiracy speculation, the secret to their meaning is hidden in plain sight. “Pre-commitment” in this case is a references to a cryptographic scheme to prevent unreleased information from being tampered with. Essentially those unique codes are proof to anyone reading the documents in the future that their contents remain unchanged: alteration to the leaks will likewise alter those 64-character codes.

The same strategy was used by Tor Project developer Andrea Shepard in a warning shot that may have helped reveal years of Jacob Applebaum’s sexual misconduct. Likewise, Edward Snowden tweeted (and quickly deleted) a similar code in August, though its meaning remains uncertain. A torrent file and accompanying SHA-512 hash was even used by someone on Reddit’s r/SilkRoad to share sensitive forum information. The tweets from Wikileaks appear to be in line with these prior examples—and surely a true “dead man’s switch” unleashing all the data Assange currently possesses would amount to much more than three measly leaks.

WikiLeaks regularly tweets about Assange's status and whereabouts, and shortly after the cryptic tweets were posted, WikiLeaks proclaimed that a "state actor" had cut off Assange's Internet connection at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where Assange had remained since seeking asylum from that country in June 2012:

Many commenters have been connecting the alleged severing of Assange’s Internet connection with WikiLeaks' recent release of sensitive material about Hillary Clinton’s campaign and/or claims that WikiLeaks is working with the Russian government to assist Donald Trump’s campaign, suggesting that the U.S. government is (or influenced) the "state party" behind the act:

One of the odder theories holds that former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who had recently paid a visit to Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy and brought him some bags from the Pret A Manger sandwich chain, might have been involved in nefarious doings:

Later that afternoon, WikiLeaks' official Twitter account said that the Ecuadorian government had cut Assange's access:

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.