It’s early February in Cancun, Mexico. A group of 60 or so financial analysts, reporters, diplomats, and cybersecurity specialists shake off the previous night’s tequila and file into a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel. At the front of the room, a giant screen shows a globe targeted by crosshairs. Cancun is in the center of the bull’s-eye.
A ruddy-faced, unshaven man bounds onstage. Wearing a wrinkled white polo shirt with a pair of red sunglasses perched on his head, he looks more like a beach bum who’s lost his way than a business executive. In fact, he’s one of Russia’s richest men—the CEO of what is arguably the most important Internet security company in the world. His name is Eugene Kaspersky, and he paid for almost everyone in the audience to come here. “Buenos dias,” he says in a throaty Russian accent, as he apologizes for missing the previous night’s boozy activities. Over the past 72 hours, Kaspersky explains, he flew from Mexico to Germany and back to take part in another conference. “Kissinger, McCain, presidents, government ministers” were all there, he says. “I have panel. Left of me, minister of defense of Italy. Right of me, former head of CIA. I’m like, ‘Whoa, colleagues.’”
He’s bragging to be sure, but Kaspersky may be selling himself short. The Italian defense minister isn’t going to determine whether criminals or governments get their hands on your data. Kaspersky and his company, Kaspersky Lab, very well might. Between 2009 and 2010, according to Forbes, retail sales of Kaspersky antivirus software increased 177 percent, reaching almost 4.5 million a year—nearly as much as its rivals Symantec and McAfee combined. Worldwide, 50 million people are now members of the Kaspersky Security Network, sending data to the company’s Moscow headquarters every time they download an application to their desktop. Microsoft, Cisco, and Juniper Networks all embed Kaspersky code in their products—effectively giving the company 300 million users. When it comes to keeping computers free from infection, Kaspersky Lab is on its way to becoming an industry leader.
But this still doesn’t fully capture Kaspersky’s influence. Back in 2010, a researcher now working for Kaspersky discovered Stuxnet, the US-Israeli worm that wrecked nearly a thousand Iranian centrifuges and became the world’s first openly acknowledged cyberweapon. In May of this year, Kaspersky’s elite antihackers exposed a second weaponized computer program, which they dubbed Flame. It was subsequently revealed to be another US-Israeli operation aimed at Iran. In other words, Kaspersky Lab isn’t just an antivirus company; it’s also a leader in uncovering cyber-espionage.
Serving at the pinnacle of such an organization would be a remarkably powerful position for any man. But Kaspersky’s rise is particularly notable—and to some, downright troubling—given his KGB-sponsored training, his tenure as a Soviet intelligence officer, his alliance with Vladimir Putin’s regime, and his deep and ongoing relationship with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. Of course, none of this history is ever mentioned in Cancun.
What is mentioned is Kaspersky’s vision for the future of Internet security—which by Western standards can seem extreme. It includes requiring strictly monitored digital passports for some online activities and enabling government regulation of social networks to thwart protest movements. “It’s too much freedom there,” Kaspersky says, referring to sites like Facebook. “Freedom is good. But the bad guys—they can abuse this freedom to manipulate public opinion.”
These are not exactly comforting words from a man who is responsible for the security of so many of our PCs, tablets, and smartphones. But that is the paradox of Eugene Kaspersky: a close associate of the autocratic Putin regime who is charged with safeguarding the data of millions of Americans; a supposedly-retired intelligence officer who is busy today revealing the covert activities of other nations; a vital presence in the open and free Internet who doesn’t want us to be too free. It’s an enigmatic profile that’s on the rise as Kaspersky’s influence grows.