Global Outlook Spend an hour or so with Eugene Kaspersky and you come out thinking the world looks slightly more sinister.
One of the most-famous cyber-security gurus, thanks to his company’s famed work analysing the Stuxnet computer virus, the Russian founder of Kaspersky Lab has a better insight than most into how vulnerable our everyday lives are to the threat of hackers.
Stuxnet, the computerised worm that damaged Iran’s nuclear programme, is the best known, perhaps, but Mr Kaspersky reels off a host of other recent attacks on everyday infrastructure orchestrated by baddies around the world.
He tells of how Latin American drug cartels knocked out the IT running Antwerp’s shipping port so they could unload cocaine-filled containers untroubled by customs officials; how Russian mobsters hacked into the software of a mining company, allowing them to siphon off tonnes of coal to sell on the side unnoticed; how another Russian gang printed themselves loyalty cards for a chain of petrol stations which, thanks to a clever bit of hacking, granted them huge discounts every time they filled up.
With each story, his chunky frame rocks with wheezy laughter, shaking his longish, greying hair. Unshaven and casual, he has the cheeky manner of a middle-aged rock star – and wealth to match.
You can see how much he respects the crooks and gangsters pulling off these cyber capers, too. After describing the coalmine heist, he grins widely: “And they were doing it for five years – that’s COOL!”. Cue another burst of Muttley-style chuckling.
Other cyber incidents are more mysterious. All the speed cameras in Moscow were knocked out in January by a hacking attack, he says: “No one knows why. Maybe it was a joke or people were just trying something out. We’ll probably never know.”
A few days after I sat with Mr Kaspersky in his Moscow-based company’s new UK office in London – an angular, glass affair – there was a news story about how UK airports and ports were suffering huge delays due to an IT collapse at customs. Once, I’d have glazed over on the story, but now my mind raced: Gangsters? Terrorists? Mr Kaspersky had got into my brain like that Stuxnet worm.
And that’s his job, pretty much. Scaring the bejayzus out of the media, chief executives and governments around the world, persuading them of the need to buy his super-secure IT to protect the critical stuff of society that we just can’t do without.
He looks slightly wounded when I put it like that. Before finding that infectious chuckle again: “Believe me,” he says. “When I go around the world talking to governments I don’t need to scare them. They already ARE scared. Heessh, heessh, heeesh.”
Some will tell you that Mr Kaspersky, whose antivirus software is now installed in hundreds of millions of PCs around the world, is himself a potential threat – he’s close to Vladimir Putin, he was trained by the KGB, he works for the Russian military, they say. The truth is more mundane, he says. When he was growing up in Soviet Russia, mathematically minded kids were sent to the higher school of the KGB, which was backed by the Ministry of Defence. There was no choice. It was predetermined for him that he’d work in Russian defence on graduation.
While that job involved computer programming, his love of virus-busting came when his own PC was infected with one. He spent an age working out what the alien thing was, how it had got in, and, most importantly, how to stop another. It was at the time Mikhail Gorbachev was beginning to allow in private enterprise: for Mr Kaspersky, a business was born.
He still lives in Moscow with his family (his four kids range in age from seven months to 26 years), but travel means he’s only there five months a year. “My mind is international, my backbone is patriotic,” he says. It must be for him to stay in Russia – one of his older children was kidnapped and ransomed a few years back, thankfully rescued without bloodshed. So, is he a little too patriotic, perhaps – too close to the Kremlin? Nonsense, comes back the Russian accent.
“The Russian government is our customer, many governments are around the world. We help police investigate cyber crime, the FBI, Latin America, London police – every nation in Europe.
“Putin? I saw him once! And I am not in touch with any Russian officials which are close to Putin. I am a little boy with a successful IT company.”
Like most high-profile Russian businessmen, he’s not big on talking Putin politics to journalists. Especially Ukrainian Putin politics. After repeated probing, all he gives up is that he’s “not a political guy” and the situation in Ukraine is “complicated”.
So, he’s talked about the mafia’s move into cybercrime, but what’s the next big threat? Easy, he answers. Mobile technology. The shift to mobile has been happening for years, with new mobile banking, e-payments and e-wallets being launched daily. The trouble is, says Mr Kaspersky, while famous viruses over the past 20 years, from Chernobyl to ILoveYou, have made us aware of the risk to our PCs, we’re not used to thinking about security on our mobile devices. Yet attacks are happening every day.
“When I say ‘mobile’ I’m also talking here about smart TVs,” he says. “These are connected to the internet. They have operating systems and they have cameras. So you are watching TV, and TV is watching you!” he giggles.
The second big story will be attacks on our infrastructure. Asked if he means hospitals, transport, nuclear plants, he shrugs: “The one thing I am sure is when it happens, it will be a surprise, like Stuxnet. When – who knows? Which nation – who knows? Which industry? No idea.”
Little surprise, then, that Kaspersky Lab is doing rather well. The recession is still having a drag on sales across the industry, but he says his business pushed through a respectable 7 per cent growth to $700m (£415m) last year. “But we can do better,” he says. “This year I dream about double-digit growth.”
Around five years ago he planned to float Kaspersky Lab in London but got cold feet. It disappointed some staff and backers – his ex-wife, for one, sold her shares.
A few days after our interview, it emerged that no fewer than five senior executives had left the firm in recent weeks. Disputes over strategy were cited. Were those who left still cross about pulling the float? Mr Kaspersky is keeping schtum, beyond the corporate press release thanking the exiles for their services and admitting differences of opinion.
I suspect you’d have more luck getting him to say what he really thinks about Ukraine. But then, for a man in his line of work, a bit of mystery’s no bad thing.