RIGA — Hero, criminal, hacker, activist, revolutionary. These are the words being used in Latvia to describe Ilmārs Poikāns.
Poikāns, 31 of Riga, was arrested in May for illegally accessing and enabling the publication of tax records of Latvia’s political and business elite using the moniker “Neo.” He confessed his actions to police forthright and was subsequently released until his pre-trial hearing.
An official from the State Revenue Service told parliament that 120 people illegally downloaded documents from the service’s electronic declaration system and that the “hole” existed from the end of 2007 until Feb. 4, 2010, when it was first discovered and promptly closed.
An estimated 7.4 million documents, equaling 120 gigabytes of data, were downloaded from the site, including income statements and tax declarations of public officials, bureaucrats, and businesses.
Data shows that top executives of the municipal companies received huge monthly salaries — 4,000 lats (€5,700) and higher — while enormous bonuses, including 16,000 lats (€22,500) to Riga Heat CEO Āris Žīgurs last March, went out the door all while regular employees took wage reductions in light of budget cuts.
This caused a firestorm of indignation in Latvia, with hundreds protesting in support of Poikāns and making the mild-mannered computer programmer one of the most famous people in Latvia. In an exclusive interview with Baltic Reports conducted via Facebook, Poikāns explains more about himself and why he felt compelled to become Neo.
Baltic Reports: Could you tell us a bit about your personal background?
Ilmārs Poikāns: I’m just a person who had courage to stand up and talk and point fingers to something which doesn’t seem to be right. It is hard to stand and say the first words, but after that, it becomes easy. So, I hope that there will be more and more people won’t keep silence and will stand up and say loudly about the wrong things that are going on in Latvia.
BR: What motivated you to become “Neo?”
Poikāns: Neo was created by the negligence of the State Revenue Service and the actions of police. I didn’t have such plan, it just happened so naturally. If somebody would told me year ago what will happen during following year, I wouldn’t believe it. Looking back and remembering how everything evolved, most logical explanation I have right now why everything happened as it happened — it was destiny :)
BR: Could you explain in technical detail how you were able to get past the State Revenue Service website’s security?
Poikāns: Technically speaking I didn’t hack anything — there wasn’t any need to get past the website’s security. There weren’t ANY security checks when you entered direct URL for document data download as file. URL has only one parameter — EDS document ID, which is sequential. Anybody that knows a little bit about how the Internet works could do the same what Neo did. So, the “hacker” part in the “hacker Neo” description actually is a big exaggeration :)
BR: Did you expect to find what you found there, that top-ranking public officials were giving themselves raises/bonuses while their lower-level employees took pay cuts or were laid off?
Poikāns: I had some doubts, that top-ranking public officials shared the same pain as others during the economic crisis. Published data showed that to everybody. It is sad that there weren’t any consequences for those officials except public shaming. But I did my part, showing the problem. It was responsibility of state to react and take countermeasures to it. At least, a law was recently passed that requires the publication of detailed data about the income of state officials. Basically, what Neo did before now is perfectly legal and required.
BR: Being a native Latvian, why do you think corruption is such a problem for your fellow compatriots?
Poikāns: From one point of view, the ruling elite is just mirror of society itself, because they came from fellow countrymen. A paradigm shift in society needs to happen first and only then we have chance to have more transparent and honest authorities.
I remember that during previous parliamentary elections after regaining independence there were people saying that it is better to vote for “old thieves” who “have stolen enough” rather than for “new people,” who will “steal their fortunes from scratch” anyway. This assumption is completely wrong. The appetite of such people can’t be satisfied, it just grows bigger and bigger by time and so does the amount of money lost from the budget.
There is even a Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau in Latvia. But it looks like its work is being hampered by politicians. I can only guess, how hard it is to legally prosecute people who are responsible for passing laws which contains loopholes that are later abused for monetary or other benefits for some people.
Sometimes I wonder, maybe Latvia needs help to deal with corruption by applying pressure from outside, for example EU, institutions, because corruption has gone too far here in Latvia and it will be too hard or too long to recover from it by ourselves.
BR: Are there any political parties you are supporting for the fall parliamentary election?
Poikāns: Unfortunately, there isn’t any “good” party to vote for in next parliamentary election in Latvia. Latvians will have to choose between the bad, worse and worst party. Too many people have lost faith in party system what is in Latvia, and I’m not an exception to it. I expect that outcome of election will surprise many.
BR: Are you considering entering politics given your popularity with the public?
Poikāns: I consider that current party system in Latvia has proved beyond any doubt that it is not working for benefit of all people. I don’t have any doubts, that system must be changed or replaced with something new, but I don’t think that it can be done using tools of old system — creating new party in this case. It has to be something new, but I’m not sure yet what exactly it will be.
BR: Do you expect the state to fully prosecute you for the data leaking/website entry or not?
Poikāns: There is still a question of whether Neo has broken the law :) I feel that this case will be dragged at least until parliamentary election in fall. From one side, the system wants to prosecute me to fullest extent possible to display its powers and inhibit new Neos from showing up in the future. From other side, the Neo case is very sensitive one, especially before elections. I would say, the prosecution depends on the amount of common sense in the system :) Neo is system anomaly in seemingly stable system. This anomaly can’t be managed with standard approach the system is used to, so the system needs to be creative in this case. But I doubt that it will happen, so the anomaly will get bigger and bigger.
Poikāns can be directly emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and more information about him can be found on his Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/ilmarmors
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