“Next thing you know the world is after me. I’m on the run and then I’m in jail in Guatemala.”
The peculiarity that John McAfee, once hero of the cyber security world, has been vilified in recent years is not lost on the antivirus founder.
“There is a great deal of irony. My problem in Belize stems from the fact I was hacking into Belizean government computers, looking for proof that they were setting me up for a bribe. Instead I found the horrible proof of murder, and drug dealing, and human trafficking.
“This is what happens when you try and address something that changes the status quo of a political system. You better prepare to be crucified.”
The McAfee I meet is not the man I imagined. The former Guatemalan jail inmate, drug addled, gun-wielding party boy and alleged murderer described in various media reports, is polite and polished - if slightly nervous.
The 70-year-old made for some bizarre headlines when a gaggle of underage girlfriends and an insatiable drug habit culminated in a series of unfortunate events two years’ ago, when his neighbour was found killed in his back garden in Belize. A prime suspect, McAfee went on the run, towing several journalists and a film producer along to document the chaos. “I had to say something, so I spoke out to the press”, he explains.
But the day before our interview was spent taking afternoon tea in the Langham Hotel with his wife, Jen, McAfee tells me. And the couple were up at five this morning to buy a travel card and hop on a double-decker. London is Jen’s favourite city, he explains. “It was fun; we went to Oxford Circus, Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square.”
Despite the calm demeanour since swapping cocaine for English tea and a double-decker, McAfee appears to suffer from a degree of paranoia. He has his own app for smartphones that lets him “lock down” his microphone, camera and Wi-Fi so “if someone is trying to spy on me they can’t turn on the camera and watch me”, he explains.
Maybe many more people in the UK and the US will soon feel the same way, with high profile data breaches as well as improved snooping powers filtering down from the UK government since the Conservatives won the April election, people are increasingly wary about surveillance.
‘I thought we had the most paranoid government around, but clearly not’
It is not just individuals that are concerned. Promising tech startups and entrepreneurs, like Ind.ie, are also fleeing the UK in protest at eroding privacy laws.
McAfee, who founded the first antivirus software in 1986, after discovering a remedy to a little known ‘virus’ bug that was infiltrating the online world, reflects on the political landscape when he began programming.
“I would have done whatever it took to do what I did. If the US government had said ‘we want to make it hard for you’ and install backdoors in IT so they could see what people were doing, that wouldn’t have worked for me. If that’s the society you are trying to foster – I don’t want to live in it.
“If you are trying to benefit the world by developing a program or algorithm or system that helps and the government is going to throw roadblocks in your way how can you do the work? You have to go somewhere else.
McAfee likens the tech brain drain to pre-war Germany when, “ all the great minds left because they could no longer perform the task they had to do thanks to the strict regime they were living in.”
Limiting privacy is ‘where England and America are exhibiting corruption’
Further, breaching a person’s right to privacy is another form of corruption disguised under Westerner’s eyes, McAfee believes.
“There are different levels of corruption. In Belize, for example, where the government says ‘give me a million dollars and I’ll leave you alone’, it seems pretty honest. I know where I stand… But if it [government] is saying that people are not mature enough to make decisions, that the government is not secure enough to let you be yourself because you may bring it down – that is where England and America are exhibiting corruption that is more insidious. It has a corrupt soul rather than a corrupt principle.”
‘It’s not so black and white’
Coincidentally, McAfee’s contradictory reputation reflects the current cybersecurity landscape – it’s not black and white. In the hat debate, he sits firmly in the middle. He recalls when, in May, Chris Roberts, a “very good friend” hacked into US aeroplane’s system over several years, and changed its flightpath. “Allegedly,” he adds.
“The fact that he could hack into the aeroplane is spooky in itself. But the government’s reaction was not, ‘Oh god we need to change the flaw’, it was ‘oh you bad man’. Was it right or wrong, I don’t know. Did Edward Snowden do something right or wrong?
“The government think he was wrong, but I’m glad he did it."
However, hacks like the AdultFriendFinder breach several weeks ago are unjustifiable, McAfee says. “When a hacker takes 4 million records and sells them – that’s definitely wrong. If it was a financial leak they could survive it but it was the personal details, sexual preferences and IP addresses of congressmen, senators and even MPs here. They are now all exposed to manipulation.”
Back in 1995, faced with addictions and having experienced his first heart attack, McAfee handed the reins for his antivirus firm to Bill Lawson, and took some time out to work on a new project, chat tool PowWow. Ten years later, it makes sense that the security luminary is working with entrepreneurs in his own accelerator, Future Tense Central, which has incubated products combining communication tools with concrete security and privacy.
One, named Starxx is a “virtually unbreakable” messaging system for enterprise, McAfee says. Another, Demon Saw, which was founded by one of the architects of Grand Theft Auto and music service Napster, promises to solve the problem with PGP encryption systems often thwarted by out-of-band communication, like a key, for example. This ‘social encryption’ algorithm is developed on both ends of those talking to each other, and “the layers of abstraction are so occluded that there are no computers powerful enough to break it”.
With the news that the US government recently suffered what could be the biggest ever theft of federal data, and the reality that the UK government will be breached (if it hasn't already) as hackers find new, sophisticated techniques, McAfee’s products should do well.
“All of the products I used are Future Tense Central. Not because I have a big head but because I have done this my whole life.”
Find your next job with techworld jobs