Vasyl Kondrashov matches the FBI's definition of the 21st century's Public Enemy No. 1 except for one thing. This 28-year-old who feeds his wife and toddler by teaching people how to break into other people's computers doesn't think what he does is a crime.
"Hacking isn't necessarily a crime, just like a knife isn't necessarily dangerous. It all depends on the person behind it," said Kondrashov, who heads what he calls a civilian hackers school in Odessa, Ukraine. "I see my task as giving knowledge as well as the responsibility to use it for good and not evil."
Known for producing science and math virtuosos, Russia and other former Soviet republics recently have gained a reputation as a source for some of the most devious hackers.
The mastermind behind the Microsoft network break-in last October was traced to a Russian e-mail address. The highest profile prosecution of a cybercrime to date was Russian Vladimir Levin's conviction in 1999 by a Florida court for stealing $12 million from Citibank accounts.
The post-Soviet region is an incubator for talented, and often jobless, prodigies able to imperil e-commerce and computer systems everywhere, say law enforcement officials in Moscow and Washington.
The elements are a dangerous mix: advanced technical knowledge common among university graduates, a legal system that often lacks the sophistication to pursue hackers and a population too poor to buy anything but pirated computer products.
"Cybercrime is bloodless so some people delude themselves that this is not a serious crime. These guys are a menace to society," said Col. Anatoly Platonov, the deputy head of the Russian Interior Ministry's unit for high-tech crimes.
The view of Kondrashov and many of his computer colleagues, who spoke to a reporter in a series of online chats, is more ambivalent.
A graduate of the prestigious Odessa State University more than 1,000 miles south of Moscow, Kondrashov said he learned many of his skills on the job. He worked as the network administrator for another university, then as a computer network security expert for the Ukrainian armed forces.
Now he is employed as the network administrator for the Moscow office of an international charity. The job doesn't pay enough money to support his family. His wife, a schoolteacher, earns only $250 per year, while his parents, both retired, each receive $10 per month on their government pensions.
"Nothing works in my country and the government is corrupt. Morally, I do not support my government. I support my family," he said.
Two years ago, the computer whiz began teaching after-school programming classes to high school students. About 300 students came to his classes last year to learn PC troubleshooting and common yet sophisticated programming languages like C and Perl, he said.
As his reputation spread, he began receiving e-mails from what he terms "more advanced" students looking to "gain knowledge for knowledge's sake." Together, they navigate through cyberspace, opening and closing files in private companies' networks not to steal or destroy, Kondrashov insisted, but to stretch their mental muscles.
"I don't teach offensive maneuvers to my students, just skills you need to know to defend your system from intruders," Kondrashov said.
In Russia, the Interior Ministry is deaf to this gospel of ethical hacking. The agency's high-tech unit, called Department R, has launched a get-tough campaign against computer criminals. Last year, it arrested 1,375 people and prosecuted 468 different cases involving computer-related fraud and property damage.
The extent of the problem is difficult to gauge and the Interior Ministry would not divulge its estimate of the proportion of active hackers it has not nabbed. Industry estimates say that only about 25 percent of computer-related criminals get caught.
Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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