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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ex-KGB and Ex-CIA Join in Computer Firm




WASHINGTON -- In 1980, Viktor Sheymov was a Soviet man in a hurry.


At 33, he was the youngest major in the KGB, in charge of coordinating security for the Soviet spy agency's code and communications systems worldwide. An engineer and computer specialist by training, Sheymov was headed for big things as a member of the Soviet elite.


Yet Sheymov also had a secret. After intensive reading and study, he had concluded that the Communist system in which he had thrived was based on a big lie. He was in a hurry to get out.


So he contacted the CIA, which spirited Sheymov and his wife and daughter out of Moscow and resettled them in the United States. He soon began work as a consultant to the National Security Agency, the United States' super-secret eavesdropping arm. For the rest of the Cold War, Sheymov helped the agency try to breach the KGB code systems that he had once worked so hard to defend. In his spare time, he earned a master's degree in business administration.


Now, 20 years later, Sheymov is again a man in a hurry, but this time to cash in on the Internet gold rush of his adopted capitalist country. He has teamed up with American Cold-War veterans from the security agency to put their old cyberspy skills to use in the new world of Silicon startups.


Sheymov has struck out on his own to develop a new computer security system that he believes could make computer networks nearly impervious to penetration by outside hackers. He has brought in computer experts from the security agency and elsewhere to help design the new system, and has also persuaded a former director of central intelligence, R. James Woolsey, to join his new company's board.


Sheymov developed a new algorithm, on which he has a patent pending, after accepting a challenge from a cybersecurity expert in the U.S. federal government.


"I was kidding him, saying, 'I can't believe you guys can't stop these kids from breaking in,'" Sheymov recalled. "So he said, "If you're so smart, why don't you do it.' That got me thinking."


His software is still at least six months away from the market. But the spy-vs.-spy backdrop to Sheymov's new company, Invicta Networks of Laurel, Maryland, is certain to provide a compelling story line that will help it attract the kind of attention that other computer startups would kill for.


The story behind Sheymov's company also provides a glimpse into the shadowy role the National Security Agency plays in computer security and professional hacking, and underscores its potential as an incubator for start-ups in the booming computer security industry.


One of the secrets of the security agency, which is in Fort Meade, Maryland, not far from Sheymov's Laurel offices, had been that it employs professional hackers who try to break into the computer networks of foreign governments, terrorists and international drug cartels. It also employs computer security experts who try to stay one step ahead of hackers to protect government computer systems.


Woolsey notes that cybersecurity and computer hacking are two subsets of the computer world where the government f and the security agency, in particular f have been ahead of private industry.


Now, with viruses, e-mail, "spamming" and hacking all emerging as major national headaches and as national security threats, at least a few veterans of t he security agency are moving into the private sector, holding out the possibility that the Maryland region around Fort Meade could be transformed into a new hotbed of the cybersecurity industry.


In fact, when Sheymov sought to test his computer security system against the best hackers he could find, he turned to another company staffed with security agency veterans, Netsafe Inc. of Annapolis, Maryland, which conducts "ethical hacking" to help companies determine the security of their computer networks. Netsafe's hacking team tried and failed to break into Sheymov's system.


"We tried and couldn't get into it," said Joe Patanella, the president of Netsafe, an 18-year veteran of the National Security Agency.


Patanella said that Netsafe's test of Sheymov's system was not a real-world exercise, since his software had not been installed on a live corporate computer system. But he came away impressed.


Computer riches may now be within sight, but Sheymov's American dream has been a long time coming.


In his time with the Soviet spy agency, his expertise on communications security f and his detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the KGB f rendered him such a national security asset that his Moscow apartment was bugged and he was subjected to regular surveillance. When he traveled abroad, he was required to stay on Soviet Embassy grounds rather than in hotels.


But on duty in Warsaw, he slipped away from his minders long enough to contact the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Americans immediately realized he was potentially one of the most important defectors of the Cold War.


For years after he defected, he was locked in a bitter dispute with the CIA over the amount of money he was owed by the federal government for his defection and collaboration against the KGB.


Sheymov believed he had been promised $1 million by the CIA before he defected, but he received far less after he arrived here. Agency officials came to believe that Sheymov could never be satisfied and had a bottomless appetite for ever-larger helpings of CIA money.


"The CIA cheated me in a major way," Sheymov insists.


Finally, Sheymov hired Woolsey, a Washington lawyer who served as CIA director in 1993 and 1994, to represent him in his battle with the agency. The sides reached a settlement last October, and, while Sheymov remains dissatisfied, he agreed not to reveal its terms.


But with his new computer company, Sheymov seems to have put his wars with the CIA in the past.


"A lot of defectors have trouble adjusting after they have come to the United States," Woolsey said. "But Viktor is one of those guys who could thrive in any system. He is one of those guys who, if you put him down on a desert island, he would build a house and then create a signaling system to catch the attention of passing ships."