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They fled Ukraine to save their cyber startup. Now they are hacking.

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 They fled Ukraine to save their cyber startup.  Now they are hacking.

Dozens of employees of the Ukrainian cybersecurity startup Hacken fled their war-torn country and took refuge about 2,000 miles away in Portugal. Since then, they have managed to keep their business and now support cyber operations against Russia.

The company moved its headquarters from Kiev to Lisbon, with stops in between, reflecting the drastic measures taken by millions of Ukrainians seeking to avoid danger and save their livelihoods while the Kremlin wreaks havoc. For Hacken CEO Dmitry Budorin, maintaining his business in a fast-growing cryptocurrency market meant urging his employees to flee before the bombs began to fall.

“How will I feel, how will I look into the eyes of my staff when we had the opportunity, had the money, realized that something could go wrong, and we didn’t do anything to pull everyone out? He said.

Hacken CEO Dmitry Budorin in Lisbon with children Rima and Roman.


Photo:

Anastasia Budorina

Hacken, a five-year company that tests blockchain-based projects for security flaws, employs about 80 auditors, developers and other crypto specialists. Many are contributing to military efforts by identifying vulnerabilities in Ukrainian and Russian computer systems and reporting information to Kyiv’s Ministry of Digital Transformation or the National Security and Defense Council, Budorin, 35, said.

Hacken’s Liberator app, which allows users to provide computing power for distributed denial-of-service attacks against Russian propaganda sites, has more than 100,000 downloads. The company is also contributing to targeted actions against Russian business, including trying to put pressure on suppliers of Russian military footwear manufacturers, Mr Budorin said.

Non-state actors supporting both sides of the conflict were shot at mostly through low-impact cyberattacks. Those who hit Russia’s targets have not received much attention, despite the fact that in recent years Washington and Brussels have sought to establish international norms that restrict such cyber activities, said Stefan Soessanta, a senior cyber defense researcher at the Center. safety research at the Swiss University of ETH Zurich.

“As part of the conflict in Ukraine, many norms and rules of non-state behavior – or even the behavior of companies – have now disappeared,” he said.

Mr. Budorin views Hacken’s offensive efforts in terms of right and wrong. “It’s not time to be afraid of something,” he said.

Hacken’s trip to Europe began on February 14, when Western officials warned of a Russian invasion. Some employees ruled out the possibility of an attack, but at a meeting at Haken’s office located in a former Russian military plant in the central district of Kiev, company executives advised the team to work elsewhere for two weeks. Mr Budorin said they thought the move would be temporary. The company offered $ 4,000 to workers who left the country and $ 2,000 to those who moved to Ukraine.

The next day on the plane to Barcelona were CEO Eugene Broshevan and others. Other colleagues traveled to Turkey, Austria or the western regions of Ukraine. Nine days later, Russian troops invaded. Until then, only a few dozen Hacken employees remained in the country to face raids and accidental disconnections.

“After all this, we realized how lucky we were to make the decision early,” Ms. Broshevan said.

Hacken executives said they split the campaign into two teams to keep the spotlight amid a stream of reports of an attack on Russia and chats in the Telegram from family and friends.

One team is running Hacken’s core business, trying to capture more of the cryptocurrency market and develop a subscription-based software that is scheduled to be released later this year. The rest are involved in a poorly organized cyber-counter-offensive against Russia.

For Denis Ivanov, Hacken’s 35-year-old chief operating officer, earning money to support Ukraine together through efforts in the digital war is better to use the team’s experience than to take up arms. It also helped him overcome guilt for leaving the country after the attack.

“The feeling that you are safe was very bad,” said Mr. Ivanov.

Mr. Ivanov said that he and his wife first went to Spain without their two children, who stayed in Ukraine with their parents. Four days after the start of the war, Mr. Ivanov flew to Bucharest, Romania, by bus and taxi to the outskirts of Moldova and moved to the country on foot to meet his parents at a checkpoint on the border with Ukraine. He then returned to Barcelona with his children – six and seven years old – for the next three days. His parents stayed at home in the Odessa region, far from the most intense fighting.

Damage to Denis Ivanov’s house in Kiev after a rocket explosion in April.


Photo:

Artsyom Ivanov

Hacken executives are now planning for the long term. According to them, office space and the cost of living in Spain were expensive, so the company moved to Lisbon last month.

Mr. Ivanov went to the city to explore the apartments and send the video back to colleagues, renting on their behalf about 20 apartments. The company offers employees an additional 500 euros each month per move.

Hacken has continued to grow in revenue and staff numbers, despite severing ties with Russian clients if they do not condemn the war, said Mr Budorin, CEO. The company brings in about $ 1 million a month and makes a profit, he said. Hiring new staff was easier than expected, Mr Budorin added, given that many Ukrainian technicians had lost their jobs. According to World Bank estimates, this year Ukraine’s economy will shrink by 45%.

Adapting to working life with colleagues in the Lisbon office, which he called “cozy”, Mr Ivanov, chief operating officer, said he was trying to save money on food and other expenses by setting a budget to educate his children and send funds to five family members home.

“Each of us [is] just wait until Ukraine wins this war, ”he said. “And each of us thinks our mission is to go back and try to recover.”

Write David Uberti in david.uberti@wsj.com

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