Russian tech in difficult spotlight thanks to Trump’s dismissal of Comey

10 May 2017

Layers of intrigue lie ahead. Image: Megan Betteridge/Shutterstock

Russian tech firms risk being guilty by association with ongoing intrigue over alleged tampering in US politics.

US president Donald Trump has dismissed FBI chief James Comey over his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. However, some believe that it may actually be a result of Comey’s involvement in an FBI probe into alleged links to Russian collusion in the recent US presidential election.

This action will only result in greater focus on Russian technology, with possibly negative outcomes for innocent Russian tech companies.

The stunning development overnight reminded people of similar actions taken by former US president Richard Nixon when he dismissed lead prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was working on the Watergate scandal.

‘The FBI is one of our nation’s most cherished and respected institutions, and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement’

The dismissal of the FBI chief has sparked calls by Democrats for a special counsel to lead the Russia inquiry.

Not only that, the increased tensions between Russia and the US – heightened by alleged Russian tampering in US democracy by way of cyberattacks and fake news – could make things very difficult for Russian tech firms selling products abroad.

Guilty by association

ABC News has alleged that that a secret memorandum has been sent to the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, by the Senate intelligence committee, raising possible red flags about Russian security software player Kaspersky Lab.

A separate, alleged report issued by the Department of Homeland Security and an FBI investigation are fuelling concerns that Kaspersky’s software could be used by state-sponsored hackers to launch cyberattacks.

This is despite the company repeatedly insisting it poses no threat to US customers and would never be used as a government tool.

Kaspersky’s technology is one of the most popular security software brands in the world, with more than 400m users, and its products are sold widely in the US on the shelves of Target and Best Buy, as well as being preloaded on popular PC machines.

According to ABC, US officials are said to be concerned about the previous activities of a number of executives who previously worked with Russian intelligence. The implication is that Kaspersky and a multitude of Russian start-ups selling technology abroad could find themselves being treated as guilty by association with geopolitical issues beyond their control.

For its part, Kaspersky has denied any inappropriate links with the Russian government.

“Kaspersky Lab does not develop any offensive techniques and has never helped, nor will help, any government in the world with their offensive efforts in cyberspace,” the company said in a statement.

Trump’s smoking gun

Trump’s dismissal of Comey has sent shockwaves across the US political establishment.

Despite potentially benefiting politically from Comey’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the continuing inquiry into Russian tampering in US elections and alleged Russian relationships with former national security adviser Michael Flynn would have embarrassed the Trump administration if proven.

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau,” the president said in a letter to Comey.

In a press statement, Trump said: “The FBI is one of our nation’s most cherished and respected institutions, and today will mark a new beginning for our crown jewel of law enforcement.”

“A search for a new permanent FBI director will begin immediately.”

Trump’s actions have been described by critics as Nixonian, and nothing short of political interference.

There are suggestions that Trump is trying to cover his tracks, which is now all the more unlikely due to the sensation Comey’s dismissal has caused.

“Today’s action by President Trump completely obliterates any semblance of an independent investigation into Russian efforts to influence our election, and places our nation on the verge of a constitutional crisis,” said US representative John Conyers, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Updated, 10.35am, 10 May 2017: Changes have been made to this article to correct and clarify a number of statements. Firstly, amendments were made to the first paragraph to clarify the circumstances of James Comey’s dismissal. Secondly, corrections have been made to errors in reporting the sequence of events in the Watergate scandal and to the number of investigators fired by Nixon (one). We have also changed reference to “secret reports” from the Department of Homeland Security and “FBI investigations” regarding Kaspersky Lab to the correct singular form, clarifying the report as alleged. Finally, a paragraph erroneously linking Trump’s statement to speculation on his reasons for dismissing Comey has been amended. Silicon Republic regrets these errors.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years