SobotkaLeaks: Boiling the Czech Prime Minister

With Poland digesting the legislative menu of its new government, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán becoming the new hero of the European anti-immigration movement and Slovakia expecting important parliamentary elections in a few weeks, the year of 2016 in Czech politics has opened with “SobotkaLeaksGate.”

Photo: European Council


It started when right-wing extremist website White Media began publishing the alleged internal email correspondence of Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, which hackers apparently managed to obtain from his personal freemail account around the middle of December 2015. 1

In the era of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, it seems surprising that a PM would still use a freemail account. We know politicians are required to go through various security checks wherein their personal integrity is scrutinized and every detail of their personal history is examined. But what about the basic IT training every new employee in a middle-sized commercial company receives?

Mr. Sobotka has claimed that he retained his personal account in order to remain close to average people, unwilling to change his normal habits after becoming the PM. It is praiseworthy for a democratically elected politician to want to keep all communication lines open for his constituents, to receive their questions, suggestions and complaints.  2

The problem is that the content of the already leaked correspondence does not fit Sobotka’s purported reasoning of “staying in touch with normal people.” It seems that a part of his agenda as the PM and the Social Democrats’ chairman has been flowing through this personal email account.

For Sobotka, as for every politician, this dirty laundry could be harmful to his perpetual attempts at building an image of a decent, good guy with the right values. He has earned a lot of sympathy, seen – as opposed to President Miloš Zeman or Minister of Finance and oligarch Mr. Andrej Babiš – as “…one of the few Czech politicians who has made relatively reasonable public comments in relation to the European refugee crisis.” In this sense, the extremists’ attack has been condemned (and Sobotka’s negligence pardoned) as a vicious reaction to a man who has not tiptoed on the line of a negative stance towards refugees or the migration crisis.  3

So do the leaked emails show us the image of “…a careless politician whose abilities are ultimately outstripped by his ambition.”4 Investigative journalist Sabina Slonková does not think so; according to her, Sobotka has been extremely cautious and does not communicate sensitive information through his emails. The leaked emails do not put Sobotka in peril at all because they are merely advice from his political and PR advisers, combined with various requests for help from his fellow party members.  5

On one hand, there are issues discussed in the leaked emails which are publicly known and regularly scrutinized by the media.  6 But then there are also matters that could seriously impair a politician’s image or career if they took place in the West. For example, Mr. Pavel Šafařík, the Chief of the Public Radio Council, informed the PM about the ongoing election of a new Czech Radio chairman in one of the leaked emails, which is rather inappropriate given that it suggests Sobotka’s involvement in the allegedly impartial elections. A reply from the PM in favor of one of the candidates would be damaging – not only for the candidate him or herself, but also, of course, for the PM. The PM denied any involvement but Mr. Šafařík has just resigned, branded the first victim of SobotkaLeaksGate.  7

How did they do it?

Almost immediately following the leaks, many jokes appeared about Sobotka having an “easy-to-crack” password such as sobotka1234, referring to the PM’s image among his opponents as a dull bureaucrat without much knowledge about real life, much less IT security in the 21st century. Others have speculated that Sobotka was not ignorant, but simply underestimated his IT security by using a freemail service whose password protection was easy to crack through a simple verification process.  8

It seems to have been a sophisticated attack made by professionals, thus vindicating Sobotka.  9 According to Czech daily MFDnes, the hackers were able to force Sobotka’s computer to crash and then, when he next logged in, re-direct it to a foreign domain and ultimately scan his emails. As police professionals have attested, this points to a hacking system called Janus. Developed by an Italian company known as Hacking Team, anyone who possesses tens of millions of CZK can purchase this software. The program is highly effective; allegedly, even a complex, randomly chosen password won’t save you from the attack.  10 If the hackers were truly White Media adherents, how could they possibly afford such an expensive program? Where did they get the money? And who is willing and able to spend so much money to attack the Czech PM?

White Blackmail Media

Sometimes we tend to perceive hackers as positive figures fighting for the general good, such as the Anonymous movement that claims to have attacked companies which refused to provide their services to Wikileaks during CableGate or block the Islamic State’s social media accounts. But the extreme right-wing scene, at least in the Czech Republic, has not usually been associated with sophisticated hacking attacks. Loud music, violent videos, paramilitary marches, and blacklists of human rights activists displayed on their websites are the right-wingers “at their best.” But attacking a democratically elected official?

The White Media website was established in 2010 in the US – not coincidentally, US law privileges freedom of speech.  11 These individuals have claimed several times that they have managed to hack the individual Twitter, Facebook and freemail accounts of people they branded as “traitors” to their nation and their race, or else supporters of Marxist, leftist, gender-based or other “deviant” ideologies.

Cui bono: that is the detective’s most important question. So we might speculate as to whether White Media is only a cover for someone who simply paid for attack.  12 Mrs. Slonková quotes police security sources’ claims that there are five organized groups in the Czech Republic that could be contracted to execute such a cyber-attack. The people associated with White Media are suspected of being intermediaries with one of these groups.  13 The fact is that the hackers revealed not only documents whose authenticity has not been questioned, but also a false document. Slonková’s source also argues that this attack is not within the usual modus operandi of right-wing extremist hackers, who tend to just hack Facebook and social media accounts and make the exposed people feel vulnerable or frightened. 14

The racist website cover is the best way to sweep away all trace of the original client, which could be a foreign country, a criminal gang, people with business interests or simply political opponents. By the same logic, it does not have to be the PM who is the target, but someone close to him or in alliance with him.

If there was such a shadowy client, was he from outside or inside the Czech Republic? 15 The weekly Respekt has informed its readers that investigators also discovered that the hackers sent all the stolen emails to an email account in Russia, so one of their theories is that Russia is behind the attack.  16 However, other sources claim that the Russian evidence is weak and based only on the general assumption that the majority of the neo-Nazi servers may be financed by Russian sources.  17

The relative calm on the Czech political scene is coming quickly to an end. In 2016, Czechs will experience the first in a series of elections – first of all, they will vote for representatives to the regional parliaments in 2016, then to the House of Representatives in 2017, and finally they will choose their president in direct elections in 2018. So the permanent campaign has just begun, and SobotkaLeaksGate may be considered one of the first shots of the oncoming battles. Who fired it or had it fired?

Notes:

  1. Sabina Slonková, The neo-Nazi attack on Sobotka’s freemail was commissioned / Útok neonacistů na Sobotkův mail byl na objednávku, Neovlivni.cz, 6.1.2016, http://neovlivni.cz/utok-neonacistu-na-sobotkuv-mail-byl-na-objednavku/. Leaks and eavesdropping scandals used to discredit political opponents have been quite frequent on the Czech political scene. Examples include the transcripts of eavesdropped phone calls between lobbyist Roman Janoušek and Prague Mayor Pavel Bém, which were made in 2007 and leaked in 2012; leaked pictures of informal secret meetings between high-ranking politicians, lobbyists and entrepreneurs in Tuscany in 2009.
  2. Ondřej Kundra, Jiří Sobota, The Tapped Sobotka / Napíchnutý Sobotka, Respekt, 11.01.2016, p. 16.
  3. Czech neo-Nazis have hacked the Prime Minister’s email account and are trying to blackmail him, Britské listy, 11. 1. 2016, http://blisty.cz/art/80617.html.
  4. Eric Best: Final Word, 6.1.2016, http://www.fsfinalword.com/data/FW160106.pdf.
  5. Slonková, The neo-Nazi attack.
  6. (kab): Hackers reveal another emails and threaten Sobotka / Hackeři zveřejnili další e-maily a vyhrožují Sobotkovi, 10.1. 2016, http://www.novinky.cz/domaci/391402-hackeri-zverejnili-dalsi-e-maily-a-vyhrozuji-sobotkovi.html.
  7. Jaroslav Bican: When the neo-Nazis intervene in the election process of the CEO of the Czech Radio / Když neonacisté zasáhnou do volby generálního ředitele Českého rozhlasu, 22.01.2016, Deník Referendum, http://denikreferendum.cz/clanek/22134-kdyz-neonaciste-zasahnou-do-volby-generalniho-reditele-ceskeho-rozhlasu.
  8. Jakub Zelenka, The hacked email can threaten the Sobotka’s government. The PM can be blackmailed, says an expert / Prolomený e-mail může ohrozit Sobotkovu vládu. Premiér je vydíratelný, tvrdí expert, Lidové noviny, 6.1.2016, http://www.lidovky.cz/prolomeny-e-mail-muze-ohrozit-sobotkovu-vladu-premier-je-vydiratelny-tvrdi-expert-gza-/zpravy-domov.aspx?c=A160105_165026_ln_domov_jzl; David Polesný, Do not let yourself get hacked as Sobotka did. Secure your email properly / Nenechte se „ohackovat“ jako Sobotka, zajistěte si e-mail pořádně, Živě.cz, 5.1. 2016, http://www.zive.cz/clanky/nenechte-se-ohackovat-jako-sobotka-zajistete-si-e-mail-poradne/sc-3-a-180941/default.aspx#utm_medium=selfpromo&utm_source=zive&utm_campaign=copylink.
  9. Ondřej Kundra, 9 mm is our argument, Respekt, 18.01.2016, p. 38.
  10. Marek Přibil: The Sobotka’s password could not hold its own, the hackers used a top software / Sobotkovo heslo nemohlo obstát, hackeři použili špičkový software. MFDnes, 15.1.2016, http://zpravy.idnes.cz/hackeri-k-vykradeni-sobotkova-mailu-pouzili-software-janus-pqq-/domaci.aspx?c=A160114_215330_domaci_jkk.  
  11. Kundra, Sobota: The Tapped Sobotka.
  12. Sabina Slonková: The neo-Nazi attack.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Sabina Slonková: The hackers’ attack. Investigators after Czech trace, Sobotka has an alibi from the National Security Office, Neovlivni.cz, 12.1.2016, http://neovlivni.cz/utok-hackeru-vysetrovatele-jdou-po-ceske-stope-sobotka-ma-alibi-od-nbu/.
  15. Slonková, The hackers’ attack.
  16. Kundra, 9 mm is our argument.
  17. Slonková, The hackers’ attack.
Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.