Cyber community mourns renowned researcher Vitali Kremez
When Vitali Kremez arrived in the United States, he was a recent dropout from college leaving his home country of Belarus for a new life across the globe. He worked odd jobs on construction projects, and played music in bars, but it wasn’t long before he found his calling: using his skills to understand and combat transnational cyber crime.
The 36-year-old cybersecurity researcher and ethical hacker died while scuba diving off the coast of Hollywood Beach in Florida, the U.S. Coast Guard announced Wednesday.
Leaders from across the cybersecurity industry mourned the loss of Kremez, who was well known for his malware reverse engineering and intelligence analysis.
Since June 2020, Kremez served as CEO and chairman of threat prevention company AdvIntel. He was also a founding member of SentinelLabs, writing reports on top-tier cybercrime groups and malware.
The research Kremez did on the Trickbot computer malware and the Conti ransomware group “was tremendous work that many in the industry depended on,” said Danny Aga, vice president at managed security provider Solis Security. “No one else was producing the quality of such insightful intelligence,” he told The Record.
Kremez started his career as a cybercrime investigative analyst for the New York County District Attorney’s Office. His work there led to successful indictments for many cybersecurity-related investigations, including data breaches, ransomware, and money laundering.
“Vitali was a true advocate of actionable intelligence and aspired to understand the threat actors' motivation, their tactics, techniques, and procedures and to create an impact with this intelligence,” said Ohad Zaidenberg, threat intelligence strategic leader at AB InBev.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kremez was a prominent member of the CTI League – a community of cybersecurity experts working to neutralize cyberthreats targeting the health care sector. His work with the elite group was detailed in the new book “The Ransomware Hunting Team.”
“He was always quick to dive in and one of the smartest researchers around,” Marc Rogers, one of CTI League founders, told The Record. “He’s going to leave a huge hole in the community.”
The Coast Guard recovered Kremez’s body from Florida waters Wednesday after searching for him over the course of several days with boats and helicopters. Kremez was wearing a black wetsuit and scuba tank when he was last seen entering the water near Hollywood Beach at around 9 a.m. on Sunday.
The exact cause of his death is unknown. Kremez went scuba diving when much of eastern Florida was at high risk for rip currents. He often spoke to friends and colleagues about his love of diving with sharks.
Off-security: My favorite hobby is swimming with sharks. Here have filmed a few curious lemon sharks in South Florida (original sound)— Vitali Kremez (@VK_Intel) November 7, 2021
“I wanted freedom, open air and adventure. I found it on the sea.” – Alain Gerbeault pic.twitter.com/fNMfx2y3YW
Many remember Kremez for his "constant smile," good sense of humor, and "enthusiasm for everything he did," said Aga and others.
“He was a very funny and kind person, an incredibly talented security researcher, and a fantastic colleague to those who had the chance to work with him,” said digital security expert Runa Sandvik. “We'd talked about malware analysis and diving over the years, and I was excited to read about his shark diving experience a year ago,” she told The Record.
I’m so happy I got to work with you and that we learned so much from each other over the years. I will always be in awe of your incredible work ethic and I will miss your infectious humor. Rest in peace, dear friend— Leroy Terrelonge III (@leroyterrelonge) November 2, 2022
“He also had an intense curiosity and fearlessness, always looking for new adventures like swimming with sharks or flying planes,” Aga said. He called Kremez's life an “ultimate American Dream story” as he went “from a Belarussian refugee to the owner of a multimillion-dollar boot-strapped company.”
Kremez wasn’t just passionate about cybersecurity — he wrote on his website that he wanted to be “a decision maker, and a public servant.”
“I see my future as a cyber leader very clearly and can barely wait to dedicate myself to the struggle for justice to my full potential.”
Daryna Antoniuk Daryna Antoniuk is a freelance reporter for Recorded Future News based in Ukraine. She writes about cybersecurity startups, cyberattacks in Eastern Europe and the state of the cyberwar between Ukraine and Russia. She previously was a tech reporter for Forbes Ukraine. Her work has also been published at Sifted, The Kyiv Independent and The Kyiv Post.