Antipathy for the devil

January 16, 2014, 4:57 PM UTC
Eugene Kaspersky paints a picture of the cyberworld that is "very, very gloomy," but he is often right.
Photo: Stephen Voss - Redux

One night last April, 500 cells at the Montgomery County Jail in Maryland clicked open. No convicts wandered out, and authorities brushed off the incident as a simple computer glitch. But across the globe in Moscow, the security breach sent chills through a Russian billionaire — Eugene Kaspersky, CEO of Kaspersky Lab, one of the world’s biggest computer-security companies.

To Kaspersky, the malfunction proved his years of warnings: that increasingly digitized infrastructure is vulnerable to attack, including stock exchanges, power grids, and rapid-transit systems. “We are fighting with the cyber-devil,” he says over a dinner of oysters, fish, and beer in Brussels in December. “We have to expect we will be fighting against very professional people.”

The possibility of a large-scale cyberattack seems remote to many, but Kaspersky’s predictions occasionally come true. In 2000, his virus hunters predicted that a high-speed virus would disable thousands of computers; in 2003 the worm Slammer did just that. The team also predicted a cyberweapon years before it uncovered Stuxnet, created by the U.S. and Israel to attack Iran, in 2010. “Kaspersky is a futurist,” says Jeff Moulton, who runs the cybersecurity program at Georgia Tech Research Institute. “He’s very good at forecasting warnings.”

These days Kaspersky seems like a one-man alarm system, pumping his dark dispatches around the world. In October he berated executives at a tech summit for failing to encrypt their smartphones. With just 30 virus hunters — he says he cannot find more to hire — Kaspersky Lab receives 300,000 unique malware reports daily, work that is “like our religion,” Kaspersky says. “Our mission is to save the cyberworld, not to make our investors happy.” Luckily, business is good: The company earned about $700 million in revenues in 2013. With cash to indulge his passions, Kaspersky hikes active volcanoes (those on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula are his favorite) and bought a $200,000 ticket to fly to earth’s outer orbit, courtesy of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Kaspersky began life in hardship in a provincial Soviet town. He was trained at a KGB-sponsored cryptology school. But his blunt talk and incessant globetrotting have made him famous. In Brussels he spoke at a global intelligence summit, using a slideshow titled “The Seven Circles of Cyber-Hell,” complete with devil’s horns. His latest prediction is for more attacks like Icefog, a devastating Trojan his team found last year that is thought to have been built by a handful of hired Chinese hackers. “Very often Kaspersky is considered to be painting a future that’s really, really gloomy,” says Gábor Iklódy, a NATO cybersurveillance specialist. “But to a large degree he is right.”

After his presentation in Brussels, Kaspersky hops into a cherry-red Ferrari on loan from the automaker for a 900-mile drive to Rome. “Why not?” he says, grinning. “I like to travel.”

This story is from the February 3, 2014 issue of Fortune.