Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab has struggled to regain its reputation after it was accused of aiding Russian intelligence operations and its software was banned from use by the U.S. government. But on Tuesday, another layer of mystery was added to the story when a Russian court convicted a senior researcher at Kaspersky Lab of state treason in the interest of the United States.
Reuters reports that Ruslan Stoyanov, the former head of the computer incidents investigation team at Kaspersky Labs, was sentenced to 14 years in prison on Tuesday. The exact details of the charges against Stoyanov aren’t publicly known because the case was classified as secret and the trial was not open to the public. A lawyer involved with the case, Ivan Pavlov, told Reuters that Stoyanov was “accused of cooperating with U.S. intelligence services.”
The secretive court also convicted Sergei Mikhailov, a former deputy director of the computer crimes unit of the Russian intelligence agency F.S.B., on charges of treason. He was reportedly sentenced to 22 years in a penal colony. His case is also shrouded in mystery, but according to the New York Times, Mikhailov’s defense lawyer, Inga Lebedova, argued that the accusations against her client were motivated by a revenge plot cooked up by a Russian businessman named Pavel Vrublevsky. When Mikhailov was a member of the F.S.B., he led the successful prosecution of Vrublevsky on charges related to hacking a payment vendor. Vrublevsky reportedly testified against Mikhailov and Stoyanov. “His goal was revenge,” Lebedeva told reporters.
This case began in 2016, when Russian officials began arresting various cybersecurity professionals in a crackdown that’s believed to have been prompted by the U.S. intelligence community accusations that Russia used cyber warfare to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. But the charges against Mikhailov and Stoyanov don’t appear to have a direct relationship with that election interference.
Russian outlet Kommersant reported this month that the two men were accused of passing information about F.S.B. investigative techniques to the FBI while working with American agents on Vrublevsky’s case in 2011. It’s not unusual for cybersecurity experts to cooperate with foreign governments when working on an investigation. But Kommersant reports that Mikhailov and Stoyanov were paid $10 million to provide information to the FBI that could have led to the U.S. intelligence community gaining insight into Russia’s cyber activities.
While countries like the U.S., the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands have raised fears about Kaspersky Lab’s relationship with Russian intelligence, the Russian courts have locked up one of the company’s top experts. Kaspersky Lab has vigorously denied that it works with intelligence agencies in any capacity outside of its official duties to protect its customers. So, if anything, this case just pulls us further away from knowing the truth. When asked for comment by Gizmodo, a Kaspersky spokesperson told us, “Ruslan Stoyanov’s trial was held in private and the proceedings were classified; we do not possess any information about the substance of his charges.”
On Tuesday, Stoyanov’s attorney told reporters that both men would appeal their conviction. “The guys think that they have stepped on some toes during their counter-hacking activity,” she said.