On Thursday morning, the eyes of the world were trained on a tense Capitol Hill hearing room, where the new acting director of the FBI testified before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about Russian meddling and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Against that charged backdrop, the spotlight unexpectedly turned to Kaspersky Lab, a prominent Russian cybersecurity company whose US headquarters are in Woburn.
“Would any one of you be comfortable with Kaspersky Lab’s software on your computers?” Florida Senator Marco Rubio asked the assembled intelligence leaders.
“A resounding ‘no’ for me,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. His five colleagues concurred, in turn. “No.” “No, senator.” “No, sir.” “No, senator.” “No, sir.”
It was the ultimate anti-endorsement — on a world stage.
Kaspersky Lab — a well-known and respected company that once sponsored a Patriots post-game radio show — makes antivirus programs and other cybersecurity products widely used by consumers, corporations, and even government agencies.
Its founder, Eugene Kaspersky, has had to repeatedly refute stories alleging the company worked on behalf of Russian security services. But it’s come under renewed scrutiny amid an FBI probe of possible Russian meddling in the US presidential election.
ABC News reported earlier this week the FBI has reinvigorated a long-running investigation into whether the cyber firm “maintains any troubling relationships with the Russian government.”
And at Thursday’s hearing, several other senators expressed concern that Moscow might use Kaspersky products to attack or spy on American networks.
In response, National Security Agency director Mike Rogers said he was “personally involved” in monitoring the Kaspersky issue, while Defense Intelligence Agency director Vincent Stewart said, “We are tracking Kaspersky and their software.”
None of the US officials disclosed what information about Kaspersky Lab motivated their suspicions, nor did they cite any cases in which Kaspersky Lab’s products were used maliciously.
Coincidentally, while the officials were testifying in the Senate, Eugene Kaspersky himself was conducting a live question-and-answer session on the social media site Reddit. Users immediately pounced on the remarks from the intelligence chiefs and posed them to Kaspersky.
“I respectfully disagree with their opinion, and I’m very sorry these gentlemen can’t use the best software on the market because of political reasons,” Kaspersky wrote. He also offered to testify before the Senate and said the officials’ remarks came “without any real reason or evidence of wrongdoing from our side.”
He later added, “I haven’t been . . . a KGB agent [or] employee for a second.”
The company also pointed to a statement it made earlier this week saying Kaspersky Lab is a private company without ties to any government. It denied helping state actors conduct cyberespionage.
“The company has a 20-year history in the IT security industry of always abiding by the highest ethical business practices,” the company said in the statement, “and Kaspersky Lab believes it is completely unacceptable that the company is being unjustly accused without any hard evidence to back up these false allegations.”
Public attention on the company was renewed in December, when Russian authorities arrested Ruslan Stoyanov, the company’s computer incidents investigation team leader, and charged him with treason for allegedly passing state secrets to American firms before he joined Kaspersky in 2012.
Senators at the hearing Thursday also asked the intelligence chiefs whether the US government used Kaspersky software to protect intelligence and defense computer networks.
“There is, as far as I know, no Kaspersky software on our networks,” Stewart testified. But he said he could not rule out that intelligence contractors with access to sensitive information might use the company’s programs.
Kaspersky said on Reddit that his company employs about 3,700 people globally; as of 2015, about 300 Kaspersky Lab employees were based in North America, most in Woburn.