When promoting new ventures, entrepreneurs don’t often brag about criminal convictions. But Peter Levashov, one of Russia’s most notorious hackers, believes his rap sheet may help attract investors.
“The U.S. government gave me lemons,” he tells TIME in his first interview about his long career as a cybercriminal, referring to his 2018 guilty plea in connection with a handful of felonies, including wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. “I’m selling the lemonade.”
Levashov was one of the most famous cybercriminals caught in the U.S. government’s dragnet to arrest and extradite Russian hackers in the wake of the attacks targeting the 2016 presidential election. After his arrest while on holiday to Spain in April 2017, Levashov’s extradition battle lasted almost a year. Levashov said that the U.S. wanted him to be connected with Russian election hacks. He claimed that he was a hacker working for United Russia.
Levashov was sentenced by a federal court to serve time and three years’ supervised release. Levashov started a new business called SeveraDAO. He says the goal of SeveraDAO is to solve one of the greatest puzzles in the information age, which is teaching computers how to choose stocks.
“My competitor is BlackRock,” he says, casually gunning for the world’s largest asset manager. If he can attract enough capital, Levashov also has plans to create his own cryptocurrency, his own cybersecurity company and, as he writes to would-be investors in a summary of the project published online this month, “anything you wish.”
Continue reading: White House aides Are Skeptical About Reining in Russia’s Cyber Attacks.
The four-page pitch is remarkably open about the criminal history that earned Levashov such nicknames as “the spam king” and “the bot master.”
“I started by doing many illegal things, like hacking computers and systems,” he writes in the project’s white paper. “I learned many things through my mistakes and I am deeply sorry for what I did when I was young.”
Levashov (41 years old) was just a teenager when the virus-building skills began to be taught to him. Levashov went on to create one of the most infected networks in history. The botnet was also known as the “botnet”. It contained tens to thousands of computers from all around the world, which Levashov had the ability to control remotely from his St. Petersburg residence. The botnet, which was known as a botnet, sent out over a billion spam email per day at its highest, U.S. investigators claim. This included messages spreading ransomware and other malware that could be used to seize infected computer data.
After his arrest, Levashov reportedly told a Spanish court that he had worked for Putin’s party. “I collected different information about opposition parties and delivered it to the necessary people at the necessary time,” he reportedly said. “If I go to the U.S., I will die in a year,” he said at the time, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, which closely followed his case in Madrid. “I will be tortured, within a year I will be killed, or I will kill myself.”
When Levashov was asked about the statements made by TIME, he said they were part of an attempt to gain sympathy for the Spanish judge. He also stated that the U.S. accusations against him seemed political. “That was all a big lie,” he says in an interview in New Haven, Conn., where he now lives. “I never worked for Putin or anything like that.”
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The indictment against Levashov does not refer to Russian election interference. It focuses instead on Levashov’s control of Kelihos (a botnet that was used for illegal stock market manipulations, and pump-and-dump stock exchange manipulations). “No cyber criminal should rest easy,” Brian Turner, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Haven division, said in announcing Levashov’s guilty plea. Levashov was ordered to be sent to jail for at most 12 years by his accusers.
In July Judge Robert Chatigny sentenced Levashov the 33-months he’d already spent in prison and three years of supervised freedom. “Thirty-three months is a long time and I’m sure it was especially difficult for you considering you were away from your wife and child, away from home,” the judge said. Levashov has had his deportation from America delayed until at least April. The court is yet to decide whether or not it will issue a fine and restitution payment.
Levashov reflects on the case and says that fighting U.S. requests for extradition was his biggest error. As his case progressed through Spanish courts, that decision cost Levashov nearly one year of his own life. He was kept in Madrid’s same cell block with Stanislav Lisov (a Russian hacker who was also arrested under a warrant from the U.S. in 2017). Although Lisov was convicted of stealing over $800,000.000 from U.S. bank accounts, his sentence was far lower than the maximum legal limit. He was sent back to Russia in June 2020.
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Levashov will continue to live in New Haven while he awaits his deportation. It will operate as a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO), which is a popular structure among cryptocurrency investors and fans. The DAO allows users to pool their funds, often in cryptocurrency, and use it as a platform for pursuing projects. PleasrDAO was one such group. It purchased the Wu-Tang Clan’s only album for $4 million. Martin Shkreli, a disgraced executive in pharmaceuticals, had owned it previously.
Levashov’s collective has bigger goals than he ever imagined. It is named after Severa, an alias Levashov used in his criminal life. Using his experience with botnets, he wants to teach a “trading bot” to analyze the language in stock market news and “quickly turn market sentiment into profit,” according to his white paper.
According to him, so far three investors have registered. They were all Russian friends. “If any one of my old friends wants to participate, they can do it,” Levashov says, adding quickly, “with legal money.”