Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Inside the mind of a Russian hacker

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Sarah Rainsford meets a reformed Russian hacker

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow and Tomsk, Siberia

Andrei is a young man with immense power at his fingertips. He's a reformed Russian hacker.

Back hunched, eyes fixed on the computer screen in front of him, he demonstrates what he can do.

"Look, here's the log-in and the password," he says, pulling up a Georgian government website.

"This site has already been hacked, I'm just demonstrating the vulnerability. But it's easy if you know how."

At just 20 years old, Andrei works for an information security firm. He says he does nothing illegal now, but he used to.

"I started when I was 14. I hacked a series of military resources, the US army, some Russian departments. I wanted to examine how well protected they were."

Andrei sees nothing wrong with what he did, as he made no money from it. Hacking for him is all about the technical challenge and the thrill.

"It's like when you have a maths problem," he says. "You don't know what tools to use, you know nothing. But you want to master it, understand it, and then use that knowledge in the future."

Technical skill

Andrei is not alone in his passion. Yevgeny Kaspersky describes Russia as a nation of "super hackers" and he should know.

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A season of reports from 8-19 March 2010 exploring the extraordinary power of the internet, including:

Digital giants - top thinkers in the business on the future of the web
Mapping the internet - a visual representation of the spread of the web over the last 20 years
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Mr Kaspersky has made his name battling the world's cyber criminals. The computer security guru says hackers in China and Latin America generate the greatest number of cyber-attacks.

The most sophisticated come from his own country.

"Russian attacks look more professional. The malware and design is more complicated and more technical," Mr Kaspersky says.

"I think it's thanks to Russia's technical education. Its graduates are probably the best."

Four hours flight east of Moscow, the next generation of those graduates is in training.

In the snow-coated Siberian city of Tomsk, one in every five residents is a student. Information security is what they excel in. But in college corridors here, students talk of hacking with respect, even reverence.

"Hacking is an art, the art of breaking-in," Alexei says. "A true hacker strives to learn something new. It's the art of constantly achieving new heights of expertise."

Tomsk University, S Rainsford
Tomsk University is one of many to offer computer security courses

The students don't learn this art directly in class. Alexei says his institute only "helps him in the right direction". But there are plenty of opportunities to hone your hacking skills on campus.

One, is when the Sibears do battle.

The cyber-warriors of Tomsk university consistently finish among the top three teams in international information protection contests. They train each week, hunting for flaws in each others cyber defences.

"I've found lots of flags! It was a successful attack," Zheniya whoops as he identifies a weak spot in his opponent's system. "Now I can get access to their database," he grins and prepares to swoop.

Cash call

For these Siberian students, hacking is a test of their knowledge and ingenuity. As Zheniya explained, you can't defend a system unless you understand the principles of attack. But there is another illegal market for their undoubted skills.

The team members say they've never been tempted but back in Moscow, Andrei admits that when he started hacking, he was constantly approached and offered money to hire his services.

Sibears hacking team, S Rainsford
The Sibears regularly top international hacking contests

First, friends and relatives wanted him to break into e-mail accounts, or destroy websites.

Then the demands became more serious.

"There were people who wanted me to infect a large number of users who were clients of a certain bank, so they could use their computers to transfer money," Andrei remembers, but says he refused. "That's not ethical."

For those who are lured by the promise of riches, Russia's cyber police insist there's no such thing as anonymity in the internet. The department claims it has uncovered more than 7,000 cybercrimes in the past nine months.

Others fear that's only scraping the surface in the fight against a crime that knows no international boundaries.

That's why Mr Kaspersky is arguing for some form of government control of cyberspace.

"We depend on this network now, and we don't control it," he says, and suggests the introduction of internet passports for every user. For him, security concerns are more important than preserving full freedom.

That would certainly have complicated life for Andrei once. But he says he's abandoned criminal hacking now, and makes a living out of internet security services instead.

"It's still hacking, but because I get paid it gives me more pleasure. It's better than hacking illegally - and for nothing," he says.

But he estimates there are at least a hundred serious Russian hackers still at work.

And now a whole new generation of cyber-specialists is working its way through the country's colleges.

Soon, they too will be faced with a choice: whether to set their minds to creating sophisticated information protection systems, or join the ranks of Russia's hackers for hire.



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