(Bloomberg) -- Cyber-attacks are one of Russia’s most well-known exports, with many of the most brazen hacks globally attributed to its security services. Its military intelligence unit known as the GRU has been accused of crimes ranging from hacking U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign to to knocking out Ukraine’s power grid.
All of that makes running a Russian cybersecurity company a bit of a challenge, particularly one seeking business outside of the country’s borders.
Ilya Sachkov, the 34-year-old founder of Group-IB, has grown his company into a global force in cybercrime investigations by deploying a strategy that has so far allowed it to navigate a world that can be hostile to Russian IT.
Group-IB, which doesn’t disclose its financial results, relocated to Singapore in 2019, and Sachkov said in a recent interview it’s on track to earn half its revenue outside of the former Soviet Union this year for the first time.
The company initially specialized in rescues of firms that were hacked and now offers an array of anti-fraud and threat-detection software. Industry analyst KuppingerCole ranked Group-IB a product and innovation leader in June, calling its network detection and response system “one of most feature-rich solutions” among 12 global vendors.
Besides relocating his company, Sachkov has been active in supporting an international framework to target hackers. He is one of 26 independent commissioners of the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace along with former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Black Hat founder Jeff Moss and others.
“Countries need to sign a moratorium on the proliferation and creation of cyber weapons for military purposes or espionage,” Sachkov said. “Smart countries understand computer crime slows down economic development.”
Still, he said his company has to battle perceptions about links between Russian companies and the government. American sales for Kaspersky, Russia’s leading anti-virus software maker, dropped by 25% after it was banned from U.S. government contracts in 2017 due to alleged ties to Russian intelligence. Kaspersky denies any links.
When Group-IB had an office in New York, Sachkov said it received frequent visits from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City police. “They ask, ‘What are you doing here?’” he said in a 2016 interview.
It’s not an easy impression to overcome. For the most part, Russia leaves criminal hackers within its borders alone, provided they focus on victims in other countries such as the U.S.
“They’ll even tag their code with things like ‘anti-American sanctions’ so that if caught there will certainly be a State Duma deputy who will say, ‘He’s not a hacker, he’s a patriot,” said, Sachkov, who founded Group-IB while still studying at a Moscow university in 2003.
“In countries with underdeveloped legal systems, there’s been an integration of crime with political or even security forces,” he said.
The government’s lack of seriousness about its image problem is illustrated by the fact a former spy, Andrey Bezrukov, is the head of its association of cybersecurity exporters, Sachkov said. Bezrukov, who served as an inspiration for the television series “The Americans,” was an embedded spy in the U.S. -- using the alias “Donald Heathfield” -- until he was exposed in 2010.
Last summer, when Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin gathered IT leaders at a university near Kazan to discuss how to develop the sector, Sachkov told him the first step was easy: arrest Maksim Yakubets, the alleged ringleader of the hacking group known as Evil Corp.
The FBI has a reward of as much as $5 million for Yakubets, who is accused of targeting Europe and North America with malware. Even so, he lives openly in Moscow and has been photographed driving a fluorescent camouflage Lamborghini with a license plate that reads “Thief” in Russian.
Bezrukov did not respond to a request for comment and attempts to reach Yakubets were unsuccessful. The government’s press service referred all questions to Russian law enforcement, which did not respond to queries.
“Cases like Yakubets hinder the development of any Russian product,” Sachkov said. “The authorities can’t even respond normally and intelligently to any hacking accusations. I didn’t get any feedback from Mishustin, and they didn’t do what I asked.”
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