Kaspersky hits back at claims its AI helped Russia develop military drone systems

Ready, set, sanctions?

AI built by Russian infosec firm Kaspersky was used in Russian drones for its war on Ukraine, volunteer intelligence gatherers claim.

The OSINT analysts at InformNapalm, which sprung up in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, made those allegations after poring over 100 GB of data stolen by Cyber Resistance activists from a Russian company called Albatross, which reportedly worked with Iran to manufacture reconnaissance drones for the Kremlin.

Kaspersky's connection to that project dates back to 2018, InformNapalm said, when a group of six individuals formed ALB-search to participate in a competition to develop search-and-rescue drone technologies.

While ALB-search didn't win that contest, the group turned into one of the cornerstones of Albatross, with two members of the team (Alexey Florov and Konstantin Spiridonov) going on to leadership positions, and another (Nikita Kalmykov) founding the company. 

Another pair of ALB-search members (Vladimir Kleshnin and Vladimir Turov) participated heavily in the development of Albatross's spy drones while employed at Kaspersky, it is said. Since 2018, Turov has served as the head of Kaspersky's Antidrone platform, which can detect and respond to unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in secured airspace.

After the search-and-rescue contest, the ALB-search team went on to register a patent for locating missing persons using fixed-wing UAVs, with that patent now featuring prominently in Albatross presentations, InformNapalm said.

To make that patented surveillance technology work properly, an onboard neural network had to be developed, and that neural net was allegedly created by a team inside Kaspersky that included Turov and Kleshnin.

The goal, we're told, was this: To produce a drone with a camera, microphones, and built-in AI that can detect the presence of people from those sensors, and relay those humans' coordinates back to base. One can imagine civilian and military uses for this.

How closely the companies, Albatross and Kaspersky, apparently worked together to develop the drone software is made clear in an Albatross slide deck included in the cache of stolen documents, which paints Albatross's drones as incapable of having ever taken off without Kaspersky's help, so to speak.

"Kaspersky Lab uses Albatross drones as a carrier for its intelligent systems," the leaked presentation boasted. "As part of a partnership with the Russian aircraft manufacturer Albatross, solutions of Kaspersky Neural Networks solutions have already been installed on the Albatross M5 fixed-wing drones and Albatross D1 industrial quadcopters."

Those same drones are now reportedly being used to scout out Ukrainian military positions since sanctions have cut Russia off from international supplies of military drones.

The heart of the matter

In short, it's claimed Albatross was formed from an attempt to make human-spotting drones, and then that tech, using Kaspersky AI, morphed into UAVs used by Russia to spy on Ukraine's defense forces. The first iteration of the technology didn't use a neural network, and hence didn't win that search'n'rescue contest, but it started taking off when Kaspersky's machine-learning systems were added, it's alleged.

According to InformNapalm, Kaspersky took steps to ensure its link to Albatross was kept under wraps after Russia invaded its neighbor Ukraine. The current status of the relationship between Kaspersky and Albatross is unknown, though InformNapalm argued Kaspersky's connections with Albatross means the anti-malware biz should be subject to US sanctions.

"Kaspersky Lab can still buy equipment, train specialists, and create new products, which will then be used by Russians in an aggressive war against Ukraine," InformNapalm claimed. "Therefore, the restrictions imposed on the Russian Federation in the technology sector should have no exceptions, and the Russian company Kaspersky Lab should also be subject to effective sanctions."

'Inaccuracies and speculations'

When asked for an explanation, Kaspersky denied most of the claims in the report to The Register. It told us it did work with Albatross albeit at the lab level rather than on a final product.

"The recent article is based on multiple false statements, as well as on factual inaccuracies and speculations," Kaspersky told us in a statement, adding it only had an experimental, non-commercial collaboration with Albatross.

The pilot project was aimed for humanitarian actions and that was it

"The pilot project was aimed for humanitarian actions and that was it. The story is also based on alleged leaked emails that are taken out of context presenting disinformation and speculation."

Kaspersky confirmed Turov and Kleshnin are its employees, though told us their work with Albatross dated to a period prior to employment at the antivirus maker. Nonetheless, Kaspersky also said it had an Antidrone solutions distribution agreement with Albatross that ended in 2022.

"The unverified opinions about Kaspersky should be taken as nothing more than unsubstantiated, false allegations against a company whose mission has always been to protect against malware regardless of its source," the biz told us. "Kaspersky remains committed to the full transparency about its business, products and technologies." ®

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