European of the Week : Ilmars Poikans, Latvian cyber-avenger

For the last few months, this intrepid mathematician has revealed on the internet the names of those growing rich off the economic crisis.
For the last few months, this intrepid mathematician has revealed on the internet the names of those growing rich off the economic crisis.
21 May 2010 – Süddeutsche Zeitung (Munich)

For months he was Latvia’s cyber Robin Hood. After hacking into secret tax files, Ilmars Poikans, alias Neo, showed his compatriots how the country’s elite lined their pockets during the crisis.

Ilmars Poikans bears little resemblance to the actor Keanu Reeves. His features are soft, his hair thinning and there’s a visible hint of a paunch under his striped shirt.

But the 31-year-old mathematician has been a hero to many ever since he accessed millions of tax files and, in February, started leaking juicy public payroll details to the press and onto Twitter. 2.4 million Latvians were thus apprised that many civil servants had handed themselves golden parachutes even as the government was enforcing an austerity plan imposed by the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to keep the state from going bust.

"Neo" the hacker – after the computer geek played by Keanu Reeves in the cult science fiction movie "Matrix" has now been unmasked as Ilmars Poikans. After his arrest, Poikans admitted to leaking the information. He’s currently out on bail and getting plenty of press in the Latvian media, who say the tweeting "Universal IT Soldier" worked at an artificial intelligence lab at the University of Riga on a programme to digitise the Latvian language.

Exposing the hypocrisy of the establishment

Unlike Liechtenstein’s Heinrich Kieber, who charged German Intelligence several million euros for his scoop [on tax dodgers], Poikans is not out to enrich himself, but to expose the hypocrisy of the establishment. He is the self-styled spokesman of the "People’s Army of the Fourth Awakening” [a one-man army, as it turns out], and many get the allusion: the independence movement’s newspaper in the 1980s was called "Atmoda", or “Awakening”. "Neo" was promptly nicknamed the Latvian Robin Hood.

He revealed that the head of the state-owned utility Latvenergo was earning €17,300 a month in early 2008. At the end of 2009 it was still over €4,000, a lavish salary by Latvian standards. Cops found out their superior officers were earning €2,800, about six times their pay. A municipal utility gave one of its managers a €22,500 bonus as late as March 2009. Pensioners earn on average €150, teachers €375 a month.

Transparency lacking in every domain of Latvian society

Neo confirmed what many Latvians had suspected: pensioners, employees and low-level civil servants bore the brunt of Valdis Dombrovski’s government’s Draconian austerity drive. Others were spared. The ire over the double standards mounted as schools and hospitals got closed down and wages cut by a third. In 2009 Latvia’s national economy shrank by 18%, unemployment hit 20.4%.

The only way to save the biggest bank in the land, Parex-Bank, was to nationalise it. Hacker "Neo" found out that its top brass then cut lower-level staff salaries whilst still treating themselves to five-digit monthly paycheques. Economist Morten Hansen of the Stockholm School of Economics, like many others, has taken a shine to the unmasked hacker-hero: "Of course laws have to be upheld, but Neo showed what’s lacking in every domain of Latvian society: transparency."

Supporters demonstrating in front of government HQ

And the controversy by the Baltic is liable to rage on for a while: Poikans has a prominent lawyer. As head of the state anti-corruption watchdog, Aleksejs Loskutovs fought till 2007 against the profligacy of Latvian officials. Loskutovs says it’s unclear whether his client committed a crime when he used a security loophole on the tax office’s website to download 1.4 gigabytes of data.

Ilmars Poikans’ popularity is spreading. The ranks of his friends are swelling on Facebook and its Latvian counterpart draugiem.lv. Last week supporters demonstrated in front of government headquarters, chalking slogans like "Catch the real thieves” or “Latvia has smart and honourable felons” on the pavement. Men gagged and sporting T-shirts that said “We choose Neo” posed in front of the public prosecutor’s office.

You don’t have to look like a Hollywood star to be a hero in a crisis-stricken land.

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