The next morning, Jere checked out Twitter, where he was both horrified and relieved to learn that thousands more had received the same threat. “If I had been one of the only people to receive the mail, I would have been more scared,” he says.
Vastaamo ran the largest network of private mental health providers in Finland. In a country of only 5.5 million people – roughly the same as the state of Minnesota – it was “McDonald’s of psychotherapy,” a Finnish reporter told me. And because of this, the attack on the company rocked the whole of Finland. It is estimated that around 30,000 people received the ransom demand; some 25,000 people reported it to the police. On October 29, a headline in the Helsinki Times read: “The hack of Vastaamo could become the biggest criminal case in the history of Finland.” This prediction seems to have come true.
If the scale of the attack was shocking, so was his cruelty. Not just because the tapes were so sensitive; not just because the attacker, or the attackers, chose patients as injured animals; but also because, of all the countries in the world, Finland should have been among the best able to prevent such a breach. Along with neighboring Estonia, it is widely regarded as a pioneer in digital health. Since the late 1990s, Finnish leaders have applied the principle of ‘seamless and citizen-centered’ care, supported by investments in technological infrastructure. Today, every Finnish citizen has access to a highly secure service called Kanta, where they can view their own treatment records and order prescriptions. Their health care providers can use the system to coordinate care.
Vastaamo was a private company, but it seemed to operate in the same spirit of technological ease and accessibility: you booked a therapist in a few clicks, the waiting times were tolerable and the Finnish social insurance institution reimbursed a large portion of the session fee. (provided you have a diagnosed mental disorder). The company was run by Ville Tapio, a 39-year-old coder and entrepreneur with pointed eyebrows, slicked back brown hair and a heavy jaw. He had co-founded the business with his parents. They presented Vastaamo as a humble family business committed to improving the mental health of all Finns.
For almost a decade, the company went from strength to strength. Of course, some have questioned the purity of Tapio’s motives; Kristian Wahlbeck, director of development for Finland’s oldest mental health nonprofit, said he was “a bit frowned upon” and “seen as too business-oriented”. And yes, there have been occasional stories of Vastaamo doing shady things, like using Google ads to try to poach potential patients from a university clinic, like the newspaper. Evening newspaper reported. But people kept signing up. Tapio was so confident in what he had created that he talked about taking his model abroad.
Before “the incident,” Tapio says, “Vastaamo produced a lot of social good.” Now he’s a former CEO, and the company he founded is being sold for parts. “I am so sad to see all the work done and the future opportunities are suddenly lost,” he says. “The way it ended is terrible, unnecessary and unwarranted.”
Tapio grew up in a “peaceful and green” neighborhood in the north of Helsinki during a bad recession. Her mother, Nina, was a trauma psychotherapist and her father, Perttu, a priest. His grandparents gave him a used Commodore 64 when he was 10 years old, which led him to take an interest in coding. Something in his brain resonated with the logical challenge of it, he said. He also saw it as a “tool to build something real”.
The obsession persisted: in middle school, Tapio coded a statistics system for his basketball team, and in high school, he worked for the Helsinki Department of Education, showing teachers how to use their computers. Rather than going to college, he set up an online store selling computer parts – his first business, funded by “a few dozen dollars,” he says. A few years later, at the age of 20, he joined a small management consulting firm.