Netanyahu turns down meeting with Russian cybersecurity head linked to US hack

Citing schedule restraints, Prime Minister’s Office says premier ‘must decline’ Eugene Kaspersky’s request for sit-down at Davos World Economic Forum this week

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab (Courtesy)
Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned down a personal request for a meeting by the CEO of Russian firm Kaspersky Lab, three months after Israel was named as the source of explosive intel that the cybersecurity firm’s software was used to steal classified information from the United States.

In a message sent to the Prime Minister’s Office, seen by The Times of Israel, Eugene Kaspersky offered to meet Netanyahu on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum later this week in Switzerland.

“Personally and on behalf of Kaspersky Lab, I would be honored to meet you in Davos,” he wrote. “Considering my role as chairman and CEO of Kaspersky Lab, the leading cybersecurity vendor, I believe there are numerous and relevant topics of discussion for us.”

In his January 10 request, Kaspersky said that “Israel is one of the leaders of the international technological development and I would be glad to discuss the cyber security landscape and ways to mitigate current risks in your country.”

But responding last week on behalf of Netanyahu, the PMO said that “regrettably, due to the heavy demands of his schedule, he must decline your kind invitation.” The prime minister is scheduled to be in Davos for the annual forum from Tuesday to Friday.

Kaspersky Lab’s anti-virus program has over 400 million global users, of which 270,000 are corporate clients using its services and technologies to protect their businesses and infrastructures. In June last year, the firm opened an R&D center in Jerusalem which it said would be focused on protecting the Internet of Things and industrial control systems.

Eugene Kaspersky and other officials at inauguration of Jerusalem office and R&D center. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The security software firm has become the focal point in an escalating conflict in cyberspace between the United States and Russia after it was accused of being a vehicle for hackers to steal security secrets from the US National Security Agency, and was banned by all American government agencies last year.

In October 2017, US media outlets reported that Israeli intelligence officials were behind a US decision to remove all Kaspersky Lab software from government servers after they alerted their American counterparts to Russian hackers using the anti-virus software to steal classified information.

An employee of Kaspersky Lab works on computers at the company’s headquarters in Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2017. (AP/Pavel Golovkin)

Over a two-year operation, Israeli intelligence agencies hacked into Kaspersky’s network and discovered that the software used globally by some 400 million people had been breached by Russian hackers who were using the program to find code names of US intelligence programs, according to The New York Times, which first broke the story.

Sources who were briefed on the developments said the Israelis provided the US National Security Agency with “solid evidence” of the Kremlin’s work based on a two-year hacking operation begun in 2014, the newspaper said. Among the information the Israelis allegedly gleaned from hacking Kasperksy were passwords, screenshots, emails and documents.

After receiving the Israeli report, the US Department of Homeland Security banned federal agencies from using any computer software supplied by Kaspersky Lab and ordered the products removed within 90 days.

Kaspersky Lab confirmed that it had taken source code for a secret American hacking tool via its antivirus software but denied knowledge of Russian hackers using its software.

Kaspersky discovered the Israeli hack of its system in 2015, which it then publicly reported in June of that year, without fingering Israel as the culprit.

A sign above the headquarters of Kaspersky Lab in Moscow, January 30, 2017. (AP/Pavel Golovkin)

Among the clues pointing to Israel that Kaspersky researchers noted was that the hack was very similar to an earlier attack known as Duqu, which they blamed on the same nations responsible for the Stuxnet cyberweapon, a joint US-Israeli virus that was used in 2010 to attack Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, destroying about 20 percent of the facility’s uranium enrichment centrifuges.

Kaspersky Lab also pointed out that the hack on its systems, which it labeled Duqu 2.0, was used against other targets of interest to Israel, including hotels and conference centers where United Nations Security Council members held closed-door meetings about a nuclear deal with Iran, talks to which Israel was not included. Since some of the targets were in the US, the researchers suggested it was solely an Israeli operation without American cooperation.

Eugene Kaspersky is a mathematical engineer who attended a KGB-sponsored school and once worked for Russia’s Ministry of Defense. His critics say it’s unlikely that his company could operate independently in Russia, where the economy is dominated by state-owned companies and the power of spy agencies has expanded dramatically under President Vladimir Putin.

The New York Times said it was not clear whether Eugene Kaspersky was involved in the Kremlin hack, or if any of his employees were cooperating with the Kremlin.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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