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Kaspersky's Russian Roots Come Under Scrutiny


Other than vodka, the Russian product most familiar to Americans is probably the antivirus software made by Moscow-based Kaspersky Lab. And the Pentagon might soon be prohibited from using any Kaspersky products. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have both just approved such a ban for the military. They cite ties to the Kremlin, which Kaspersky denies. NPR's David Welna has our story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Things began to look bad for Kaspersky Lab in the middle of a hearing that the Senate intelligence committee held in mid-May. Six intelligence agency chiefs sat at the witness table, and Florida Republican Marco Rubio had a question for all of them.


MARCO RUBIO: Kaspersky Lab software is used by, if not hundreds of thousands, millions of Americans. To each of our witnesses, I would just ask, would any of you be comfortable with Kaspersky Lab software on your computers?

WELNA: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was the first to answer.


DAN COATS: A resounding no for me.

WELNA: Then National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers.



WELNA: One by one, all six said no. For James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the chorus of no's came as no surprise, given that the firm's owner, Eugene Kaspersky, studied at a KGB cryptography institute.

JAMES LEWIS: And he still has a company that operates out of Moscow. So for an intelligence agency, those are going to be red flags.

WELNA: Lewis says his own suspicions about Kaspersky were piqued by a conversation with Russia's ambassador to the U.N.

LEWIS: One day, he came up to me and he said, in Russia, we have saying that once you are a member of security service, you never leave. And I said, well, that's not true in the U.S. And he said, well, it should be. And then he walked off. And as he was walking away from me, I thought, what did he just tell me about Eugene Kaspersky?


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Please put your hands together for Kaspersky Lab's very own chairman and CEO, Eugene Kaspersky.

WELNA: A video that Kaspersky Lab posted last year on YouTube shows the company's owner striding onto a stage in front of employees with its North American division. Kaspersky's message to them was the world needs our products.


EUGENE KASPERSKY: The world is vulnerable. It's a dark age of the cybersecurity.

WELNA: Kaspersky Labs said its CEO was not available to talk to NPR, but his firm did issue a statement saying, quote, "it is completely unacceptable that the company is being unjustly accused without any hard evidence to back up these false allegations." Over the weekend, Kaspersky told the Associated Press that reports were true that FBI agents had recently visited at least a dozen Kaspersky employees in the U.S. And while Kaspersky also acknowledged having former Russian spies on his staff to the AP, he denied any wrongdoing.


KASPERSKY: The company stays on the bright side of the cybersecurities. So we do all the best to protect our customs. We stay in the bright side and never, never, never go to that dark side.

WELNA: Some who know the firm well hold it in high regard.

RICK HOLLAND: Kaspersky in the cybersecurity community has a very good name.

WELNA: That's Rick Holland at Forrester Research. He tracked Kaspersky Lab for years.

HOLLAND: I know many people that work there. I know many Americans that work there, so they're thought very highly of. But given the political climate, it's kind of not surprising that you would see this come up again.

WELNA: And despite doubts about Eugene Kaspersky, cybersecurity expert Lewis has praise for his firm.

LEWIS: They make a good product. They do good research. I use some of their research myself. So there's no question about the company or what it makes. There's questions about where it happens to be headquartered.

WELNA: Do you use Kaspersky to safeguard your computer?

LEWIS: (Laughter) No.

WELNA: The Pentagon has not said whether it uses Kaspersky products, but the threat of a ban clearly has Eugene Kaspersky worried. He's now offering to move more of his company's research to the U.S. and even make its source code available for American officials to inspect. David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

MCEVERS: We should say Kaspersky Lab is among NPR's financial supporters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.