How Eugene Kaspersky is on the front lines in the cyber-wars

Eugene Kaspersky
Russian “gazillionaire” Eugene Kaspersky

With pressure for further sanctions on Russia mounting, you might expect the founder of the Kaspersky Lab – arguably “the biggest international Russian brand outside vodka” – to be feeling the heat, says The Daily Telegraph.

Not a bit. Computer malware is what Eugene Kaspersky likes talking about. He’s only too happy to brush aside talk of Ukraine to concentrate on the more pressing matter of this month’s Heartbleed attacks.

The internet security vulnerability has been a boon for Kaspersky’s outfit, which currently ranks fourth in the global anti-virus vendor league behind Symantec, McAfee and Trend Micro.

With annual revenues of around $700m and offices in 30 countries, the holding group is registered in Britain. Kaspersky likes to think this “neutrality” will offer some protection from those keen to impose sanctions.

With his ruddy face and somewhat dishevelled appearance, Kaspersky, 48, doesn’t much resemble the stereotypical idea of a Putin apparatchik. But given his company’s influence over computer systems globally, his background may trouble some in the West, says Wired.

A former Soviet intelligence officer, who studied cryptology and computer science at an institute sponsored by the KGB, Kaspersky has “a deep and ongoing” relationship with its successor, the FSB. His isn’t just an antivirus company; “it’s also a leader in uncovering cyber-espionage”.

In 2010, his “elite anti-hackers” discovered Stuxnet, the US-Israeli worm openly acknowledged as the world’s first cyberweapon. In 2012, it exposed Flame, another computer weapon aimed at Iran. It’s probably safe to say he’s not a favourite at the Pentagon.

Born in Moscow, Kaspersky developed an interest in computers as a teenager. His first experience of viruses came in 1989 when he encountered Cascade: a relatively “playful little thing”. It got him hooked. “For Eugene, it was an addiction,” his business partner, Alexey de Mont de Rique, recalls.

Having quit the army to join an old instructor’s IT company, he founded his own in 1997 with his wife and de Mont de Rique. The marriage foundered, but the company prospered; it began its global conquest when it opened an office in Cambridge 15 years ago.

In 2011, Kaspersky suffered an anxious few days when his 20-year-old son, Ivan, was kidnapped. His first port of call was the FSB, who tracked down the culprits within three days. This illustrated his close connections with the service. But then, what choice does he have, says Wired.

As one Russian tech exec notes: “rule number one here is good relations” with the politicians from the former security or military structures. Kaspersky is “an international entrepreneur and thinker who is from Putin’s Russia”. But that doesn’t mean he’s “of it”.

‘There’s too much freedom on the net’

Kaspersky loves to globe-trot, cultivating “the image of a wild man with cash to burn: the flamboyant say-anything, do anything, drink-anything gazillionaire”, says Noah Schachtman in Wired. He sponsors the Ferrari Formula One team, goes on pub crawls in Dublin with Bono, and clowns around on TV commercials with Jackie Chan.

At his labs in Moscow, some employees wear Che Guevara T-shirts with the boss’s face replacing the revolutionary’s. But don’t mistake him for a dilettante. Kaspersky is deadly serious about his company’s broader ambition of serving as “a global crime-stopper and peacekeeper”.

Even so, his vision for the future of internet security “can seem extreme”. There’s “too much freedom” on the net, he says, and that allows cybercriminals to flourish. His particular bugbear is social media, which he blames not just for overly lax data privacy issues, but also for the freedom it gives rabble-rousers “to manipulate public opinion” and spark protests.

He’d like to see more government regulation to curb it. On that score at least, this paradoxical man is at one with Vladimir Putin. The Heartbleed security vulnerability affects OpenSSL software used on website servers.

How serious does Kaspersky think it really is? While the IT industry rushes to devise patches, hackers exploiting the flaw (which Kaspersky compares to “a weak door lock, easily opened without the key) have attacked targets including Mumsnet in the UK and the Canadian Revenue Agency.

“For businesses, governments and other institutions, there’s the risk of losing confidential and even top-secret information, which could be very damaging indeed,” Kaspersky told The Daily Telegraph.

More broadly, he believes it’s only a matter of time before malware begins infiltrating our daily lives. The threat will soon “diversify to mobile phones” and devices such as internet-enabled TVs. He hopes to stay one step ahead.