RIGA - For some residents of depression-hit Latvia, he’s a modern day Robin Hood, exposing the fat cats and many overpaid civil servants of the country. For others, he’s a cyber-gadfly with little new to say, reports news agency AFP. An unknown hacker claims to have swiped millions of records from the tax office. He calls himself Neo, presumably a nod to the lead character in the cult sci-fi movie trilogy The Matrix.
Struggling with the EU’s deepest economic crisis and seeing their wages slashed in an austerity drive, Latvians have been comparing their lot with public-sector salaries he has published. The self-proclaimed Neo has drip-fed the data into the public domain via the Internet, publishing financial details on subsidiaries of the national electric utility Latvenergo. The documents he leaked showed that some of their 2009 severance pay packages amounted to a five-year salary.
These documents show that the drastic spending cuts launched to deal with Latvia’s economic collapse have been far from even-handed, the hacker claims.
Neo released his findings on the microblogging site Twitter, listing salaries and compensation in the nationalized bank Parex, the central bank and state-owned companies. “I think we have dissipated doubts about the real situation with salaries in the government sector,” Neo told Latvian Public Television in a written interview. “If earlier we had suspicions, then now we have real figures that support them,” he added.
But the campaign being waged by this IT vigilante has received a mixed reception from crisis-weary Latvians. Since the massive security breach became public, some small-business owners have been concerned about the safety of their own tax data.
“I don’t think you could call him a national hero,” said shop owner Tatyana Skubija. Though she called Neo a criminal, she nevertheless expressed some support for his salary leaks. “I think in his case, the end justifies the means,” she said.
“The aim is admirable,” says 28-year-old professional Evija Klaise. “But who will be the one who should decide, ‘You can steal these data, but not those?’”
Blogger Sestdienis, with a blog posted on the daily newspaper’s Web site diena.lv, said he supported Neo. “The gradual release of the salaries of the government officials supports overall transparency,” he said. “I support Neo mainly because he finally revealed what we should have known a long time ago,” he said. “The time has come to end the stupid secrecy and make public and private salaries publicly accessible.”
The Cita Diena news Web site journalist Pauls Raudseps also hailed Neo. “He’s a hero in the same way Robin Hood is a hero.” Raudseps acknowledged that not a lot of the data was new or shocking information, although he said Neo may be holding his fire until October’s general election.
Since the massive online security breach was revealed in mid-February, Latvian authorities have scrambled to rebut each of Neo’s claims. Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis (New Era) downplayed supposed shock revelations on ‘golden parachute’ severance packages as old news. “This situation was known before. We’re taking action as regards to state-owned companies,” Dombrovskis said. “Last summer we were dealing with those issues. So, it’s as if someone had just failed to notice it and now sees this as some kind of news,” he said.
Neo claims to be part of a previously unknown group calling itself the ‘Fourth Awakening People’s Party’ - an apparent reference to past Latvian nation-building movements. “Our goal is to do everything so that people have an honest and just attitude and can be proud that they live in Latvia,” Neo said on Twitter. The hacker alleges that over the course of three months, his group took advantage of a security loophole to download more than 7.5 million documents from Latvia’s revenue service.
The Finance Ministry launched disciplinary cases against three of its high-ranking IT employees and police began their own criminal investigation, which has so far made little progress.
Latvia’s economy, having surged after its 2004 European Union entry on reckless bank lending and consumer borrowing, is currently suffering its deepest crisis since breaking free from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its economy shrank by 18 percent in 2009 compared to 2008. Under an austerity drive that is part of a 7.5-billion-euro bailout package agreed with the IMF and European Union at the end of 2008, Latvia slashed public sector wages by an average 11 percent in 2009.