The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
“I’ve been doing cybersecurity since I was 18, since I joined the army in 1982,” Minin told me after we’d ducked out into the hallway so as not to distract the young contestants. He wouldn’t say in which part of the army he’d done this work. “At the time, I signed a gag order,” he told me, smiling slyly. “Do you think anything has changed? And that I’d say it to a journalist?”
After the army, Minin joined the KGB. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, he went to work in the Russian government’s cyber and surveillance division. In 2010, after he’d retired and gone into the private sector, he helped found ARSIB, which has connections to the Russian defense ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the interior ministry.