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They fled Ukraine to keep their cyber startup alive.  Now they hack.


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

The company has moved its main office from Kyiv to Lisbon, with shutdowns in between, reflecting the drastic measures taken by millions of Ukrainians seeking to escape danger and preserve their livelihoods while the Kremlin wreaks havoc. For Hacken chief executive Dmytro Budorin, keeping his business in the fast-growing cryptosecurity market meant urging his employees to flee before the bombs started falling.

“How am I going to feel, how am I going to look into my employees’ eyes, if we had the opportunity, had the money, understood that something could go wrong, and we didn’t do the right thing. least something to try and get everyone out?” he said.

Hacken CEO Dmytro Budorin in Lisbon with his children, Rimma and Roman.


Photo:

Anastasia Budorin

Hacken, a five-year-old company that tests blockchain-based projects for security vulnerabilities, employs around 80 auditors, developers and other crypto specialists. Many contribute to the war effort by finding vulnerabilities in Ukrainian and Russian computer systems and reporting the information to the Ministry of Digital Transformation or Kyiv’s National Security and Defense Council, Budorin said, 35 years.

Hacken’s Liberator app, which allows users to lend computing power to distributed denial-of-service attacks against Russian propaganda sites, has over 100,000 downloads. The company is also contributing to targeted efforts against Russian companies, including an attempt to pressure suppliers to Russian military shoemakers, Budorin said.

Non-state actors supporting both sides in the conflict have exchanged fire primarily through low-impact cyberattacks. Those who strike Russian targets have seen little scrutiny despite pressure from Washington and Brussels in recent years to set international standards limiting such cyber activity, said Stefan Soesanto, senior cyber defense researcher at the university’s Center for Security Studies. Switzerland ETH Zurich.

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

Mr. Budorin sees Hacken’s attacking efforts in terms of good and bad. “Now is not the time to be afraid of anything,” he said.

Hacken’s journey through Europe began on February 14, as Western officials warned of a Russian invasion. Some employees ruled out the possibility of an attack, but in a meeting at the Hacken office, located in a former Russian military factory in kyiv’s Central District, company executives advised the team to work elsewhere for two weeks. Mr. Budorin said they believed 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.

Business development manager Yevheniia Broshevan and others were on a plane to Barcelona the next day. Other colleagues went to Turkey, Austria or the western regions of Ukraine. Nine days later, Russian forces invaded. At that time, only a few dozen Hacken employees remained in the country to deal with the bombings and occasional communications blackouts.

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

Hacken executives said they had split the company into two teams to stay focused amid the flood of alerts about Russia’s assault and Telegram conversations from family and friends.

A team is running Hacken’s core business as it tries to grab a bigger share of the cryptosecurity market and develop subscription-based software slated for rollout later this year. The other embarks on the loosely organized cyber-counteroffensive against Russia.

For Hacken’s 35-year-old COO Denys Ivanov, making money to support Ukraine, while helping the digital warfare effort, is a better use of the team’s expertise than to take up arms. It also helped him overcome a sense of guilt for leaving the country when he was under attack.

“The feeling that you were safe was so bad,” Mr Ivanov said.

Mr Ivanov said he and his wife initially went to Spain without their two children, who remained in Ukraine with his parents. Four days after the war began, Mr Ivanov flew to Bucharest, Romania, took buses and taxis to the far reaches of Moldova and crossed that country on foot to meet his parents at a post. control at the Ukrainian border. He then returned to Barcelona with his children – aged six and seven – over the next three days. His parents remained in their hometown in the Odessa region, away from the most intense fighting.

They fled Ukraine to keep their cyber startup alive.  Now they hack.

Damage to the home of Denys Ivanov in kyiv following the explosion of a missile in April.


Photo:

Artem Ivanov

Hacken’s leaders are now planning for the long term. Office space and the cost of living in Spain were expensive, they said, so the company moved to Lisbon last month.

Mr Ivanov traveled to town to scout apartments and send videos to colleagues, renting around 20 apartments on their behalf. The company offers employees an additional 500 euros each month to settle there.

Hacken continued to grow its revenue and workforce, despite severing ties with Russian customers unless they denounced the war, said Mr. Budorin, the chief executive. The company generates about $1 million in revenue per month and is profitable, he said. Hiring new employees has proven easier than expected, Budorin added, given that many Ukrainian tech workers are out of work. The World Bank has estimated that the Ukrainian economy will contract by 45% this year.

Adjusting to a working life with colleagues in a Lisbon office he described as “comfortable”, Mr Ivanov, the chief operating officer, said he was trying to save money on food and other expenses as he budgets for his children’s education and sends funds to five family members at home.

“Each of us [is] expect Ukraine to win this war,” he said. “And each of us thinks it’s our mission to come back and try to rebuild.”

Write to David Uberti at david.uberti@wsj.com

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