Hacker Neo becomes a national hero

  • 2010-05-19
  • By Kira Savchenko

RIGA - Latvia’s popular Internet hacker Neo, who turned out to be a peaceful middle-aged scientist, has been released from arrest and has held his first press conference. He said he acted alone and discovered a “hole” in the State Revenue Service’s electronic declaration system by accident. Meanwhile, his supporters arranged several protests and the parliamentary opposition asked for Interior Minister Linda Murniece’s resignation following a police raid of a journalist’s apartment.

Neo gained popularity three months ago when he published the salaries of public transport company Rigas Satiksme on his online Twitter profile. As it turned out, tough austerity measures did not hinder the transport company’s employees from receiving from 2,000 lats (2,850 euros) to 6,000 lats monthly salaries. Some of them ‘earned’ a prize of from 12,000 lats to 25,000 lats, while teachers’ and doctors’ salaries had been cut about 40 percent. Neo kept publishing salaries of public sector employees until May.  In total, Ilmars Poikans, 31, (Neo) a researcher at the University of Latvia’s Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science, downloaded 7.4 million documents, including tax declarations of public officials, civil servants and businessmen.

“There is no group ‘Fourth National Reawakening Army’ or anybody else. I acted alone. I do not plan to go into politics. I did this because I want my children and grandchildren to live in a normal country. That is the only reason,” said Poikans at a press conference at the University of Latvia.

Neo is accused of hacking and illegal information distribution. He could face 10 years of imprisonment and/or a 36,000 lats fine. However, his lawyer, Aleksey Loskutov, politician and the former director of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, said that there is going to be no trial.
“Ilmars Poikans did not hack into the State Revenue Service system, but discovered a “hole” by accident and just downloaded some files. There is no corpus delicti,” Loskutov said.

The scandal around this new Robin Hood became quickly politicized. To arrest Neo police made a house search of television journalist Ilze Nagla, which afterwards was considered to be unethical and unlawful. Nagla was Poikans’ old acquaintance and the only journalist who communicated with him. So, three opposition parties – People’s Party, Harmony Center and Latvia’s First Party/Latvia’s Way – asked for Linda Murniece, the Interior Minister, resignation. Together they have 45 mandates in the parliament; however, politicians do not really expect to shelve her.
“I do not care if Murniece stays in the Interior Ministry. I need my electorate to know what I think. And I think that she acted wrongly and needs to resign,” said Janis Urbanovic, the head of Harmony center faction.

The first, and up to now the only, case on journalists’ rights violations took place four years ago, when People’s Party headed the government. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and ordered the state to pay Latvian Television reporter Ilze Jaunalskne 12,000 lats for moral damages for being illegally wiretapped by the police.
Latvians are warmly supporting Poikans and Nagla: about 50 - 80 people demonstrated against the accusations and house search. Groups of peaceful protesters went to the government building and to the Prosecutor General’s office. Many of them wore t-shirts printed with “Neo is our choice!” and held placards “Free Neo!”, “Neo lives in all of us,” and more along those lines. Among them were five of Poikans’ colleagues from the University of Latvia and several politicians.

Ilmars Poikans is not “clean” and obviously not a medieval knight, said Linda Murniece to Latvijas Radio. “In the beginning, I also thought that he wants to save the world. That is not true, unfortunately. The more we know, the more it seems like it was a perfectly planned operation. Things look bad.”
“The current situation is amusing, because most of the information about ridiculously high salaries in the public sector was open and accessible,” said Aigars Freimanis, political analyst and the director of opinion polling agency Latvijas fakti.

"There is more PR than real content in this story. It describes Latvian society very well – everybody is passive, waiting for their Robin Hood and gladly digesting all scandals. Actually, journalists could discover that information themselves, but in this case there would not be mystery and intrigue. Now people have found their hero and they are happy. So are the opposition parties.”