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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When Cybersecurity Meets Geopolitics

FireEye Chief Executive David DeWalt says all major powers have “somewhat national-born security companies.”
Achille Bigliardi
Before American computer-security company FireEye FEYE -0.88% releases a report on new hacker activity, it sometimes gives the U.S. government an advance copy. Dutch competitor Fox-IT trains the Netherlands’ cyberwarriors. Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab helps Russian authorities investigate hacking cases.
The cybersecurity industry is growing more provincial as digital warfare has become a routine part of statecraft. To investigate and clean up after an attack, corporate hacking victims typically must choose among a handful of companies, each with ties to a national or super-national government, in the U.S., Europe or Russia.
Segmenting online security this way creates the potential for blind spots on the World Wide Web, security companies and experts say. It also opens the possibility that security firms might look the other way for certain types of hacking — though no clear example of this has been found.
Major powers “all have somewhat national-born security companies,” FireEye Chief Executive Dave DeWalt said in a recent interview. “You end up, I think, with sort of cyber-blocs of superpowers that are racing to gain an advantage.”
Added Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of several books on computer war: “For all the talk that the Internet is a global commons, the security of it is a place where national borders still matter.”
The issue gained new attention last week after Kaspersky’s founder and chief executive, Eugene Kaspersky, wrote an 1,800-word blog post attacking a Bloomberg News story that accused his company of being too cozy with Russian spies. Kaspersky is a force in the antivirus market in Russia, Europe and South America, and has a growing presence in the U.S. consumer and small-business market.
“I must have said this a million times, but we do not care who’s behind the cyber-campaigns we expose,” Kaspersky wrote. “There is cyber-evil and we fight it.”
Bloomberg asserted Kaspersky attends sauna nights with Russian spies and is deeply intertwined with the Kremlin. Kaspersky didn’t deny the sauna gatherings, but argued they weren’t conspiratorial and the presence of spies was coincidental.
Some people close to Kaspersky said the report captured the spirit of the company — non-Russian employees are sometimes asked, half-jokingly, if they work for foreign intelligence services. The company’s chief legal officer, Igor Chekunov, has military kitsch in his office, one of these people said.
Kaspersky representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The company made news this year when it released a detailed report on what former U.S. officials said was an American hacking campaign to spy on Russia, China and some countries in the Middle East. As a rule, Kaspersky doesn’t say where it thinks attacks originate, though it sometimes drops hints.
Silicon Valley-based FireEye does the opposite, in a sense. The company publicizes hacking campaigns it discovers and links to China, Russia or Iran. In the interview, CEO DeWalt said he would think twice before publicizing a similar hacking campaign by Americans.
To be sure, these firms do not march exclusively to a geopolitical drum. Kaspersky has reported on computer intrusions thought to originate from Russia, and sometimes works with Western law enforcement. Symantec SYMC +0.12%, based in Silicon Valley, in 2010 it played a leading role in outing Stuxnet, a computer worm the U.S. and Israel used to slow Iran’s nuclear program.
FireEye, founded in 2004, received early backing from In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that acts as a venture capital firm for the Central Intelligence Agency. But as the company has started to expand internationally, it occasionally runs into trouble with potential customers in France and Germany, spokesman Vitor De Souza said.
The company has trained its sales employees not to play up the company’s government ties or In-Q-Tel backing, De Souza said. FireEye generates roughly three-fourths of its revenue in the U.S., according to securities filings.
Ronald Prins, co-founder and director of Fox-IT, the Dutch cybersecurity company, acknowledged that the Dutch military buys encryption tools and hacking lessons from the firm. But he notes the company has been aggressive investigating breach attempts linked to the U.S. and U.K. — both Dutch allies. He says fragmentation in the security market has more to do with where security companies are based and less to do with politics.
A recent effort at Kaspersky may show the limits of those efforts. In recent years, the company started a walled-off division to try to win U.S. government contracts. Kaspersky Government Security Solutions reports to its own board and only hires people eligible for American security clearances.
So far, the company is yet to win a prime contract with the U.S. government, though it has worked on a couple of sub-contracts with U.S. firms, a person familiar with the matter said.

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