Russian police suddenly arrested 35-year-old cybersecurity tycoon Ilya Sachkov on Wednesday, placing him in detention for at least two months on nebulous charges of treason. The offices of Sachkov’s Group-IB corporation in Moscow and St. Petersburg were also raided, with no indication of what police were searching for.
Sachkov’s arrest was a stunning reversal of his good relations with the government of President Vladimir Putin. Sachkov was a highly touted prodigy of the Russian technology scene, founding his company at the age of 17 and making the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of influential young entrepreneurs in 2016.
When Forbes reported Sachkov’s arrest and “fall from grace” on Wednesday, it noted the young cybersecurity CEO was frequently photographed alongside Putin and received at least one business award from the Russian president in 2019. Group-IB’s customers include major Russian banks and defense contractors.
Sachkov took some steps to distance his company from the Kremlin, well aware of Russia’s bad reputation in cybersecurity circles. He frequently criticized Russia for indulging hackers, provided their targets lay beyond Russia’s borders, and participated in international programs to combat cyber-crime. When he opened a Group-IB office in New York, he was irked but unsurprised to receive frequent visits from the FBI.
“Countries need to sign a moratorium on the proliferation and creation of cyber weapons for military purposes or espionage. Smart countries understand computer crime slows down economic development,” Sachkov said last year.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) noted Group-IB has offices in Amsterdam, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi, and its customer base spans over 60 countries. Its services were recommended by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2013.
Forbes noted that Group-IB has become “a major partner for international policing agency Interpol, assisting on numerous global investigations of cybercriminals.” The company recently assisted Interpol with high-profile hacking investigations in Morocco and Nigeria.
Russia’s state Tass news agency quoted a “source in law enforcement” on Wednesday who said Sachkov allegedly “worked for foreign intelligence and handed them classified information on cybersecurity.”
“The investigation suspects Sachkov of handing over classified information on cybersecurity to foreign intelligence agencies,” the source said, adding that Russia’s FSB security service is involved in the case.
The Tass source said Sachkov may be suspected of working for several different foreign intelligence agencies, but their identities, along with other details of the case, will be kept classified.
“Group-IB’s team is confident in the innocence of the company’s CEO and his business integrity,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
The statement said company managers and lawyers are reviewing the case. Group-IB co-founder Dmitry Volkov will assume the top management position in Sachkov’s absence.
“All of Group-IB’s divisions will continue operating as usual,” the company said.
Radio Free Europe quoted Group-IB staffers who said law enforcement agents spent “several hours” at the Moscow office on Tuesday, and a local news station that said plainclothes officers emerged from the office “carrying boxes and other items to a van.”
The BBC quoted Russian business ombudsman Boris Titov demanding details from the government about the charges against Sachkov.
“It is necessary for investigators to explain themselves. Otherwise the sector and its investment attractiveness will be dealt a critical blow,” Titov warned.
The WSJ noted Sachkov’s arrest is “the latest in a series of treason cases brought by Russian authorities in recent years, including against academics, officials and at least eight scientists.”
“Many are accused of passing sensitive material to other countries, in charges that some political observers and lawyers say highlight the government’s insecurity and mistrust as it seeks to ensure Mr. Putin’s complete control,” the WSJ added.
AFP added two more notable treason cases: the head of a hypersonic technology research institute arrested in August 2021 for allegedly passing “secret information” to a “foreign citizen,” and a former defense journalist arrested in July 2020.