Eugene Kaspersky — the stocky, garrulous, 50-year-old founder and chief executive of the global computer-security company Kaspersky Lab — is something of an anomaly in Russia, a businessman who built a global brand from scratch, using brains and persistence.
MOSCOW — A sense of menace stirs right off the elevator on the fifth floor of Kaspersky Lab’s Moscow headquarters, where a small television screen displays cyberthreats occurring in real time around the world — a blinking, spinning, color-coded globe brimming with suspicious emails, malware and evil botnets that could be infecting a computer near you.
That feeling of unease intensifies when Eugene Kaspersky — the stocky, garrulous, 50-year-old founder and chief executive of the global computer-security company — begins to catalog possible threats: The computerized elevator you just left is vulnerable to cyberattacks, as are your smartphone and smart car. Your bank, without question. Your electricity and water supplies could be at risk. Cybercriminals grow smarter, bolder and more elusive every year.
“We are living in the middle cyberage, the dark ages of cyber,” said Kaspersky, whose modest corner office with glass walls overlooks a stretch of canal and a boat club. He has longish salt-and-pepper hair, a trim beard and a ruddy, tanned complexion. “Right now, it is more functionality, more technology, more services, but not enough security.”
Birthplace: Born in 1965 in Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea
Family: Married three times, has four children. Founded Kaspersky Lab in 1997 with his first wife, Natalya.
Estimated net worth:$1.1 billion, according to Forbes, putting him at 66th among Russia’s top 200 richest people.
Source: The New York Times
Kaspersky Lab is most famous for being the home of the brainy geek squad that exposed Stuxnet and Flame, the American-Israeli cyberweapons that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program.
Kaspersky and his company find themselves at the forefront of the battle against cybergangs, one of the largest emerging threats, for two rather simple reasons, he said: “Russian software engineers are the best; unfortunately, Russian cybercriminals are the best, as well.”
Hacking methods developed in the Russian-speaking world are going global, suggesting a thriving black market in malicious code. “They don’t just hack the victims, they trade the technology to other gangs,” said Kaspersky, who speaks colorful English with a Russian accent. “Now there are hundreds of victims, in the United States and Asia.”
One gang alone is believed to have stolen up to $1 billion from banks, mainly in Russia, in 2013 and 2014. And this month, Kaspersky Lab experts helped Russia catch its largest hacking gang yet — 50 people were arrested and accused of stealing $45 million since 2011.
Investigators now believe the North Korean government hacked an international financial-messaging system in February in an effort to drain $1 billion from the central bank of Bangladesh. They managed to get $81 million before the Federal Reserve Bank of New York became suspicious and cut off the transaction.
Kaspersky is something of an anomaly in Russia, a businessman who built a global brand from scratch, using brains and persistence. His firm is among the most successful international computer-security operations in the world, with offices in 32 countries, and about 400 million people using its software, by its own estimate. It runs high-profile advertising campaigns, like its sponsorship of Ferrari’s Formula One team.
However, given the tense relations between Russia and the West, Kaspersky Lab is fighting a rear-guard battle along with combating cybercrime: allaying concerns that a Russian security company can be trusted to protect confidential data stored online by Western companies and individuals.
Some of the questions are rooted in Kaspersky’s past — even in Russia, where the company and its founder generate both pride and suspicion.
Kaspersky was born in 1965 in Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea, to an engineer father and a mother working in the national archives. His mother nurtured his early aptitude for mathematics and, after the family moved to Moscow, he blossomed into a prodigy.
Kaspersky went on to a KGB-sponsored university education intended to transform mathematicians into cryptologists, and pictures of him in a KGB uniform are readily available online.
“I was not good enough to become a true cryptologist,” he said, laughing.
Instead, he turned to software engineering, becoming the go-to guy in the Red Army for computer problems.
“I wrote the code for the Soviet military,” he said.
He published an early book on computer viruses and founded Kaspersky Lab in 1997 with his first wife, Natalya.
There is a strong sense in Russia that no company, particularly no computer-security company, could succeed without Kremlin support, and Russian tech experts invariably refer to two episodes that fed mistrust.
Kaspersky once advocated requiring an individual passport for web access, an idea the Kremlin encouraged, although he has come to focus on controlling access only to sites of high national security interest, like utilities. Government critics also found Kaspersky Lab slow to react during protests in 2011, when numerous opposition websites collapsed under a severe criminal attack widely attributed to the Russian government.
In December, Kaspersky raised questions by signing his first cooperation agreement with a major state-run Chinese enterprise. Some Russian internet experts saw that as proof of choosing sides, becoming the anti-West cybercop and endorsing the Chinese model of a highly filtered internet.
Kaspersky said his China contract was simply a matter of capitalizing on its need for better security, especially since he sees Russian malware emerging there. Others said he had to make his peace with the system — or leave.
“He decided to accept the rules and to stay here,” said Andrei Soldatov, the co-author of “The Red Web,” a book documenting the Kremlin’s efforts to transfer ubiquitous Soviet surveillance techniques onto the web. “He is part of the Russian tradition of engineers who really believe in order.”
Kaspersky appears in self-effacing nerd mode around Kaspersky Lab headquarters, busing his own cafeteria tray and riding the elevator downstairs to smoke outside like everybody else, despite the vast balcony outside his office.
He wears a Swatch and usually flies commercial airlines. In addition to Formula One, he underwrites various quirky or scientific projects — including the excavation of the mysterious Minoan civilization of Akrotiri, on the Greek island of Santorini — and he delights in exploring remote spots in eastern Russia, the American West and New Zealand, among other places.
“I want to be not only a very professional, very correct, very good security company,” he said. “I also want to be an unusual company.”
Kaspersky works as his brand’s high-profile envoy, spinning around the globe seemingly at the speed of the lights on his cyberthreat map. His travels last year included 116 flights and included more than 50 presentations. He documents every step on a blog translated into nine languages.
“You wonder if he is ever asleep or ever at home,” said Anton Nossik, a Russian tech pioneer and journalist, noting that the entrepreneur maintains a particularly sunny disposition online for someone selling the need to fight crime.
Where Kaspersky breaks out of the nerd mold is with his brash, booming presence at large corporate events.
“He loves to be in the spotlight,” said Aleksandr Plushev, who covers tech for the Echo of Moscow radio station. “He is a very bright, funny, smart and open-minded person, with his own opinion. A little bit crazy, like almost all very talented people.”