By Dustin Volz
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Wednesday told U.S. government agencies to remove Kaspersky Lab products from their networks, saying it was concerned the Moscow-based cyber security firm was vulnerable to Kremlin influence and that using its anti-virus software could jeopardize national security.
The decision represents a sharp response to what U.S. intelligence agencies have described as a national security threat posed by Russia in cyberspace, following an election year marred by allegations that Moscow weaponized the internet in an attempt to influence its outcome.
In a statement, Kaspersky Lab rejected the allegations, as it has done repeatedly in recent months, and said its critics were misinterpreting Russian data-sharing laws that only applied to communications services.
"No credible evidence has been presented publicly by anyone or any organization as the accusations are based on false allegations and inaccurate assumptions," the company said.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a directive to federal agencies ordering them to identify Kaspersky products on their information systems within 30 days and begin to discontinue their use within 90 days.
In a statement accompanying its directive, DHS said it was "concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies, and requirements under Russian law that allow Russian intelligence agencies to request or compel assistance from Kaspersky and to intercept communications transiting Russian networks."
It continued: "The risk that the Russian government, whether acting on its own or in collaboration with Kaspersky, could capitalize on access provided by Kaspersky products to compromise federal information and information systems directly implicates U.S. national security."
The department said it would provide Kaspersky with the opportunity to submit a written response to address the allegations. The agency said other entities claiming commercial interests affected by the directive could also submit information
Kaspersky Lab has repeatedly denied that it has ties to any government and said it would not help a government with cyber espionage.
However, the company has not been able to shake off the allegations. Last week, Best Buy Co <BBY.N>, the No.1 U.S. electronics retailer, said it was pulling Kaspersky Lab’s cyber security products from its shelves and website.
Rob Joyce, the White House cyber security coordinator, said Wednesday at the Billington CyberSecurity Summit that the Trump administration made a "risk-based decision" to order Kaspersky Lab's products removed from federal agencies.
Asked by Reuters whether there was a smoking gun showing Kaspersky Lab had provided intelligence to the Russian government, Joyce replied: "As we evaluated the technology, we decided it was a risk we couldn’t accept."
Some cyber security experts have warned that blacklisting Kaspersky Lab could prompt a retaliation from Russian President Vladimir Putin. Joyce said those concerns were a factor but that a "tough decision" ultimately had to be made to protect government systems.
The direct financial impact of the decision will likely be minimal for Kaspersky Lab, one of the world's leading anti-virus software companies, which was founded in 1997 and now counts over 400 million global customers.
Federal contracting databases reviewed by Reuters show only a few hundred thousand dollars in purchases from Kaspersky, and an employee told Reuters in July the company’s federal government revenue was "miniscule."
But Kaspersky also sells to federal contractors and third-party software companies that incorporate its technology in their products, so its technology may be more widely used in government than it appears from the contracting databases, U.S. officials say.
The decision by the Trump administration came as the U.S. Senate was planning to vote as soon as this week on a defense policy spending bill that includes language that would ban Kaspersky Lab products from being used by U.S. government agencies.
Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who had led efforts in Congress to crack down on Kaspersky Lab, applauded the Trump administration's announcement.
"The strong ties between Kaspersky Lab and the Kremlin are alarming and well-documented," Shaheen said, adding that she expected Congress to act soon to reinforce the decision by passing legislation.
Also on Wednesday, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote to DHS asking whether the agency used Kaspersky products in relation to any critical infrastructure, such as election equipment, banks or energy suppliers, and if it knew whether any voting systems used the company's software.
Eugene Kaspersky, the company's co-founder and chief executive, attended a KGB school, and the company has acknowledged doing work for the Russian intelligence agency known as the FSB. But he has adamantly denied charges his company conducts espionage on behalf of the Russian government.
(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)