The Russians

An Afternoon With Eugene Kaspersky, the Antivirus King with the Chesire Cat Grin

Reporter: “You paint these very negative pictures.” Mr. Kaspersky: “I’m paranoid!”
img 20121120 1207141 An Afternoon With Eugene Kaspersky, the Antivirus King with the Chesire Cat Grin

Mr. Kaspersky, with Mr. Alonso.

“The world I’m living in, which is the security world, is becoming more and more complicated,” Eugene Kaspersky ominously informed us. One would imagine: his Russia-based antivirus company, Kaspersky Labs, essentially announced the new age of cyberwar with the 2010 suggestion that Stuxnet must’ve been built with nation-state support. The target–Iran’s nuclear facilities–made it clear that the U.S. was likely involved (a detail cinched by The New York Times earlier this year).

Mr. Kaspersky was in New York for the launch of a new ad campaign with the somewhat corny title of “Driving Toward Better Online Security,” starring Formula One driver Fernando Alonso. (Both men were outfitted in the appropriate shade of Ferrari fire-engine red.)

In person, Mr. Kaspersky comes off as unexpectedly jolly for an antivirus kingpin. That Wired profile had us expecting more of a bear-wrestling Hemingway character. And while he did devote a fair bit of time to waxing poetic about off-the-grid vacations in Russia’s remote, volcano-heavy Kamchatka peninsula, Mr. Kaspersky also peppered his points with laugh lines and pulled goofy faces. Even while admitting that yes, he’s a paranoid man, he still flashes a Chesire Cat grin.

One exchange during the Q&A period offered a concise example of the tenor of the afternoon.

Reporter, after a good quarter hour listening to Mr. Kaspersky talk about cyber dangers: “You paint these very negative pictures.” Mr. Kaspersky: “I’m paranoid!” Reporter: “Is there a positive?” Mr. Kaspersky, relishing the exchange: “Yes. I’m optimistic. We will survive. I don’t know how, but we will survive.”

After a Formula One-heavy press conference with Mr. Alonso–the highlight of which was the correspondent from Playboy Russia asking what he liked about Russian girls–Mr. Kaspersky and we tech journalists adjourned for a Q&A about online security.

The Woolworth Building peeking out over his shoulder, he opened with a brief overview of the history of hacking. Teens wreaking havoc for the fun of it gave way to cybercriminals. Now, the actors are more sophisticated: “There are criminals, there are hacktivists, maybe government-sponsored guys,” he said, adding, “The worst is now there are instances of what I call cyberterrorism.” Examples would be the 2007 Estonian Internet blackout and the recent Aramco attack.

“What to do?” he asked rhetorically, before answering his own question with a Bond villain-like chuckle: “Pray.”

Presumably he’d also like you to download Kaspersky antivirus software.

Kaspersky’s role in unraveling Stuxnet also raises the question of whether national maneuverings on the cyberfrontier create a conflict of interest for not just Kaspersky, but American firms like McAfee.

For his part, Mr. Kaspersky loudly denies any official connection to the Russian government, especially the FSB. It’s not as though his company intends to find out governments are behind these viruses. “The reality is when we find the new malware in the network or somebody sends us a sample, sometimes we recognize maybe they’re not criminals. Maybe they’re states,” he admitted. “But we detect it anyway,” said, comparing Kaspersky Labs to a metal detector that pings regardless whether it’s a policeman or a gangster wearing the gun.

“It’s a new game and still there are no rules of this game, and what we are doing is trying to establish these rules,” he said. In the meantime, he added, “I do my best to stop cyberweapons.”

And while Mr. Kaspersky expects cyber-spying will always be with us, cyberweapons, he believes, have a limited future. He told us that he believes nation-states will eventually ban them in some sort of international treaty, similar to the restrictions around nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. They’re just too unpredictable. He said he’d met with officials at Russia’s department for cybersecurity and been told they shared his opposition.

Asked about whether any nations were more likely to develop cyberweapons than others, he merely repeated a little tidbit he’d already shared: “Russian software engineers are the best. Condoleezza Rice said that.”

“I think when the Russian government comes with their message that, let’s make cyberweapons forbidden, that’s a good idea to follow,” he added.

Duly noted.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com

Comments

  1. Francisco G says:

    Dude, if we are talking security software founders, I’d rather spend an afternoon with John McAfee – The Paranoia there is a lot more fun. :-)