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Kaspersky software 'used by Russian state hackers to trawl for US secrets'

Ben Farmer
Headquarters of Kaspersky Lab in Moscow - AP

Popular anti-virus software used by hundreds of thousands of people and businesses in Britain was reportedly hijacked by Russian government hackers to trawl for American secrets.

Cyber spies allegedly used software from the Russian firm Kaspersky Lab which is installed on computers around the world to improvise a search tool and look for the codenames of secret US programs.

Discovery of the operation led the American government to last month order the removal of the software from its computers, the New York Times reported.

The software is used by 400 million people worldwide and is one of the most widely used anti-virus tools in Britain, installed by hundreds of thousands to protect their computers from cyber crime.

The National Cyber Security Centre, the offshoot of GCHQ responsible for securing online life in Britain, said it did not give guidance on whether the software was safe to use.

Russia's Kaspersky Lab CEO and Chairman Eugene Kaspersky Credit: Getty

Computer users must give their anti-virus software widespread access to files so they can be scoured for viruses. But such access potentially makes the software a perfect “backdoor” for hackers, according to computer experts.

Kaspersky Lab has repeatedly denied accusations it is complicit in Russian state cyber operations. Technical experts said hackers may have gained access to its software without the firm knowing.

The firm on Wednesday said it had “never helped, nor will help, for any government in the world with its cyberespionage efforts” and said its software “does not contain any undeclared capabilities such as backdoors as that would be illegal and unethical”.

The scale of the intrusion was reportedly discovered more than two years ago when Israeli officials who had hacked into Kaspersky networks themselves saw evidence of Russian activity.

The Israelis warned America’s National Security Agency (NSA) that they had witnessed Russian hackers using Kaspersky’s access to search for US secret programs and send any findings back to Russian intelligence systems.

The Russian operation stole classified documents from one NSA employee who had stored them on his home computer which was installed with Kaspersky software.

The NSA said in September it was ordering the software off its computers because of the “risk that the Russian government, whether acting on its own or in collaboration with Kaspersky, could capitalize on access provided by Kaspersky products”.

Kaspersky Lab estimates it has 400million users worldwide, but would not say how many people or which firms used its software in Britain. UK consumer research from Mintel last year showed it was used by seven per cent of people using anti-virus software.

A statement said: “Kaspersky Lab was not involved in and does not possess any knowledge of the situation in question.

“As the integrity of our products is fundamental to our business, Kaspersky Lab patches any vulnerabilities it identifies or that are reported to the company.”

The firm said it wanted to work alongside the US authorities “to address any concerns they may have about its products as well as its systems”.

Eugene Kaspersky, founder of the firm, has for years strongly denied accusations his company provides intelligence to the Kremlin and called suspicions of its ties there “total BS”.

He was trained at a KGB cryptography institute and later served as an intelligence officer in the Soviet army. Although he left to start his company, Mr Kaspersky has kept up ties with the state. He has said he has friends in the interior ministry and the FSB, the KGB's successor agency, and told WIRED magazine that it was thanks to “very good relations” with the security service and police that he was able to quickly recover his son when he was kidnapped.

Russia is known for its high level of online surveillance: The FSB is able to monitor all telephone and Internet communications through surveillance boxes installed at all telecom providers, a system known as SORM.