Entrepreneurs do not typically brag about their criminal records when promoting a new business venture. 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. His arrest in April 2017, while on holiday in Spain, set off a legal battle over his extradition that lasted nearly a year. Levashov claimed at the time that U.S. authorities wanted him in connection with the Russian election hacks. He also said he had worked as a hacker for United Russia, the ruling political party of President Vladimir Putin.
In July, a federal judge sentenced Levashov to time served, plus three years of supervised release. Since then, Levashov has been working on a new venture, which he calls SeveraDAO. Its goal, he says, is to crack one of the most elusive puzzles of the information age: teaching machines how to pick 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.”
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, was a teenager when he began learning how to build viruses. He went on to assemble what would become one of the largest networks of infected computers in history. Known as a botnet, it included tens of thousands of computers around the world that Levashov could control from his home in St. Petersburg without the owners even knowing it. At its peak, the botnet used these computers to pump out more than a billion spam emails a day, according to U.S. investigators, including messages that spread ransomware or other malicious programs that could seize the data of infected computers.
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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.”
Asked about these statements by TIME, Levashov says they were part of a strategy to win sympathy from the Spanish judge and to make the U.S. charges against him seem political in nature. “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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Indeed, the indictment against Levashov makes no mention of Russian election interference, focusing instead on his control of the botnet known as Kelihos, which was allegedly used for pump-and-dump stock market manipulations and other illegal schemes. “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. Prosecutors asked the court to send Levashov to prison for at least 12 years.
But in July, Judge Robert Chatigny sentenced Levashov to the 33 months he had already served in jail, plus three years of supervised release. “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. The court has not yet ruled on whether to impose a fine or restitution payments on Levashov, whose deportation from the U.S. has been deferred at least until April.
Reflecting on his case, Levashov says his biggest mistake was to fight the U.S. request for his extradition. That decision cost him nearly a year of his life as his case worked its way through Spanish courts. For a time he was held in the same Madrid cell block as another Russian hacker, Stanislav Lisov, who had also been arrested on a U.S. warrant in early 2017. Though Lisov pleaded guilty to stealing more than $800,000 from accounts in U.S. banks, he also received a sentence far below the legal maximum; he was deported back to Russia in June 2020.
While awaiting his own deportation, Levashov plans to stay in New Haven and develop his business project. The venture will be structured as a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, or DAO, which has lately become a trend among crypto investors and enthusiasts. It allows people to pool their money, usually in cryptocurrency, and pursue projects as an online collective. One such group, called PleasrDAO, made headlines in October with the $4 million purchase of the sole existing copy of an album by the Wu-Tang Clan, which had previously been owned by disgraced pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli.
Levashov has more ambitious goals for his collective, which is named after an alias (Severa) he used during his criminal career. 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.
So far, he says, only three investors have signed up. Each were among his acquaintances in Russia. “If any one of my old friends wants to participate, they can do it,” Levashov says, adding quickly, “with legal money.”
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