Eugene Kaspersky is the poster child of cyber security. Let’s face it, the man is huge. In Russia, he has a fan club while some of his peers (like John McAfee) have entanglements with foreign governments. I have a T-shirt his groupies made for him and his company, Kaspersky Lab. On it, his headshot is pixilated by the words Anti-Virus in green lettering. Groupies, here, is no understatement. The same adoration for “Kasper” follows into his offices in Moscow. His staff, most in their early thirties and twenties, is amazed by him.
“When he comes home to the Moscow office, it’s like daddy’s home,” says Anton Shingarev, 27, Kaspersky’s chief of staff. He was wrapping up an event in Rome on Dec. 13 with internet security types of the same age. Kaspersky was outside smoking on a veranda, circumvented by men chatting in Russian. “Everybody wants his time. Everyone wants to be with him.” Shingarev shakes his head. It’s a gesture that says, “unbelievable.”
For many of his colleagues, Eugene Kaspersky can walk on water. Especially when it’s frozen. Photo by Anton Shingarev.
Take every American stereotype you have of a Russian man and stick it in a meat grinder. If Moscow is gray and 10 below, 48-year-old Kaspersky is sunny and 75. In Cancun in February 2012, Kasperksy’s in a Hawaiian shirt at the Ritz Carlton mingling with pretty Russian women half his age and dancing around, never alone. It’s like no one can let this playful kid out of sight. At Davos recently (he’s a regular), the man’s cracking jokes about malware gangs and warning about cyber warfare. In Tokyo, he’s climbing Mount Fuji and pigging out on Sushi.
* * *
On his desk in the company’s new $300 million digs along a man-made lake a half hour out of Moscow sits a model of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Are you boldly going where no one in cyber security has gone before, Eugene? Yes, he says on a cold July afternoon. “Branson gave me that. I’m kind of a Virgin Galactic investor. I don’t know when we’re launching, but I’m going from cyber space to outer space,” he says.
A couple of yachts are berthed at a marina within eyeshot. They’re not his. He points across the lake. It’s the damn coldest summer day I’ve ever experienced. His house is there. “I like this office,” he tells me. “When the lake is frozen, I walk across it to work.”
Walking on water. Russian cosmonaut. The “cult” of Kaspersky is an easy one to fall into. Still, Kaspersky has put his name on the line. While his personality is legend, his product has to stand on its own.
Kaspersky: from cyber space to outer space. On his desk, a model of one of the Virgin Galactic space craft that will take people out into Earth’s orbit. On the other side sits a 1985 Olivetti M24 computer, similar to the model he used in 1987-1989 when he discovered a Cascade virus. He’s been hooked on malware ever since.
In 10 years, Kaspersky has become one of the top three brands in internet security. Symantec SYMC +0.1%, owners of Norton Antivirus, fired its CEO Enrique Salem last year. John McAfee, the bad boy of IT security, is now elated to have his name off the product and said his old McAfee anti-virus program “has reached a point of almost universal consumer hatred.”
This is not a sentence Kaspersky would ever say.
“He is the face of that company and he definitely likes it,” says Peter Firstbrook, a vice president at Gartner Research. In January, Gartner named Kaspersky a “Leader” in endpoint security protection for the third consecutive year. This isn’t some giant firm either. In U.S. consumer security, Kaspersky has around 9% market share.
“There’s a difference between his company and market leader Symantec. I think it’s youth and energy,” says Firstbrook. “You walk into Symantec’s office and it’s all 50 year olds. The other thing is that Symantec and McAfee have grown by acquisitions. They haven’t invented anything in years. Kaspersky Lab techs take the time to rewrite programs and even make new ones from nothing.”
I’m not a techie, and don’t always understand the lingo. But Firstbrook does. He mentions how Kaspersky has added application controls like whitelisting. Within a year’s time, they’ve built partnerships with Microsoft MSFT +0.64% and Adobe.
“Smart people know Kaspersky has good software,” he says. “I think they are the best at catching malware. They’re consistently in the top half.”
There’s this room in Kaspersky Lab they call the war room. One tech is seated behind a circular table of computers. There are screens in front of him, and screens overhead. It’s all black and green scrolling text and numbers like the opening credits to the Matrix.