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Modern field guide to security and privacy

John McAfee: Antivirus legend, ex-fugitive, and most colorful 2016 presidential candidate

An interview with the software pioneer – and eccentric millionaire – who started his own political party: The Cyber Party. 

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    John McAfee announces his candidacy for president on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015 in Opelika, Ala. McAfee will form the Cyber Party.

    Todd J. Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News
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John McAfee is the most colorful presidential candidate that you will likely never see on the national debate stage. 

The software pioneer made his name through McAfee Associates, which became the first commercial seller of antivirus software in the 1980s.

But it was his public, and at times bizarre, lifestyle after selling that company in 1994 that earned Mr. McAfee his eccentric reputation: He ran from Belizean authorities seeking to question him in connection to the death of his neighbor and went into hiding in Guatemala before he was ultimately detained in 2012. His latest arrest was this summer in Tennessee for a DUI and possessing a handgun while under the influence.

Now, the 70-year-old millionaire has started his own political party, the Cyber Party, changing his Twitter bio from "eccentric millionaire and still alive" to the more straight-laced "technology pioneer and presidential candidate 2016." 

In his bid for president, McAfee seeks to draw attention to digital security and privacy issues and says he can, and will, win.

Passcode caught up with McAfee to talk his aspirations for the Oval Office, why he thinks we’re at cyberwar with China, why he hired an alleged plane hacker as his chief technology adviser, and how cyberthreats have evolved since the time he started McAfee.

Listen to our full interview in an entertaining, special episode of The Cybersecurity Podcast, or check out key excerpts, edited for length, below.

Passcode: Let’s start with what I think everyone wants to know. Why did you decide to run for president?

McAfee: It’s not something I want to do, I can assure you. My closest friends and advisers for over a year have been pushing me to do this. I think I finally woke up to the reality of our political system and the incompetence of our current government. The array of candidates, if you look at them closely, in my mind, are not people who solve the fundamental issues, so I jumped in.

Passcode: Why didn’t you join a party?

McAfee: Parties are responsible for the nightmare we live in now. The parties have become machines. But once you enter one, the human heart is subdued and you just become part of that machine.

Passcode: But you’re starting the ‘Cyber Party’ focused on technology. What’s that about?

McAfee: Technology is the thing that’s lacking within our government. We have candidates – Hillary Clinton believes wiping a disk means taking a damp rag and wiping your computer. Donald Trump is proud of the fact that he’s never written an e-mail. Yet we're living in a world where the Chinese have literally declared war on us. And it’s a cyberwar. [Editor's note: China has not actually declared cyberwar on the US.] They sucked up 14 million records from Office of Personnel Management, including all of our top-secret employees for the past 35 years and our embedded agents among them. All their lives are at risk. The government has not told us what happened to those people, they just said, “Oh well we made a mistake and we need counseling for our people to make them feel better about what happened.” That’s an act of war and one of the greatest coups of espionage ever.

Passcode: So you think we’re already at cyberwar?

McAfee: Of course we are. What China has done – it’s not just the OPM, it was the FBI, Homeland Security, Department of Defense. They are collecting the information that would allow them to do an all-out offensive. They could take out all our electrical substations here in America. We would be without power forever. We would wake up one morning, and we’d have no money, no records of anything. We operate an entire society that depends upon cybertechnology to exist and China could wipe us out instantly.

Passcode: So, as president, how would you deal with China?

McAfee: I would recognize the fact that they are way ahead of us on cybersecurity and cybertechnology and the weapons of cyberwarfare, and do something. I would immediately hire some of the brightest technological minds I know. Trust me, I know most of them out there. I’d set about the task of analyzing all our systems. Some of them were programmed in the early 1980s. We add software on top of them, and on top of them, and it’s full of holes and non-functional. The government is way behind private industry. Corporations understand the value of security. because the leakage of their competitive information could be the end of the corporation. The government seems to be completely immune. That has to change.

Passcode: Dealing with China, though, also requires a diplomatic response.

McAfee: I would not have done what was just done, which was, ask China to stop doing it – to please stop attacking us. Do you realize the futility, the insanity of that statement? It’s like Churchill, in the 1940s, calling Hitler saying, ‘I have an idea: Stop attacking us.’ What insanity is that? The way our relationship is, we’re at war. I wouldn’t do a military response because a military response is askew in this day and age.

Passcode: How do you feel about the reforms made already to government surveillance?

McAfee: Here’s the problem: The citizens have become the enemy. When you’re standing in line at the airport and your shoes are off, your belt is off, and your personal belongings are being closely scrutinized, and you’re standing with your hands in the air, waiting to be patted down, do you feel protected? I don’t. I feel like I’m the enemy. And if you feel like you’re the enemy maybe you are. Governments sometimes turn paranoid. And they fear things. And sometimes the thing they fear the most is the populace. I want a government that looks at me as the citizenry and someone they are there to serve.

So basically the National Security Agency is asking me, and you, and all of us, to open the kimono and examine the most private parts of our lives to assure everyone we are not the enemy they are trying to protect us from. They to be curtailed. If we’re going to be spying on someone, let’s spy on someone who is the real enemy, not the citizenry. Edward Snowden, whether you want to call him a hero or the enemy of the state, we all needed to know what he told us.

Passcode: You said in your presidential announcement video that this country’s founding fathers ‘could not have envisioned a world where spy cameras are hidden in cactuses.’ Could you say more about that?

McAfee: Spy cameras are hidden in cactuses. Four months ago in Arizona it was revealed that one of the municipalities had actually placed spy cameras in cactuses of all places. You can Google that on the Web. But Forget about cactuses for a second. If you’re out on the street, look up and count the cameras. I guarantee you there’s more than you can count. They’re on the traffic lights, the corners of buildings, looking out of windows and shops. We are watched mercilessly by everyone constantly.

Passcode: You’ve experienced firsthand how technology and information posted about you can affect your life. The reporters who went to see you when you were on the run posted some pictures online that had metadata still attached, so authorities could find where you were, and you were arrested. Do you think the average American understands just how much information is collected about them online, by authorities or companies - and what are the risks?

McAfee: I don’t think they are aware. Because if they were we’d all be on the streets in outrage, carrying signs. We’d be calling our congressmen. We would be yelling out the windows, ‘I am angry, I can’t take it anymore.' But part of my job over the next year is to make them aware. To provide information to the voters: Look, this is the world you’re living in. It’s a tragic nightmare and you’re living it you just would not notice it. And people are trying to tell you – if you have nothing to hire why do you care? That is the most insane thing I’ve ever heard. Privacy is something you choose every day.

Passcode: How have you seen the cyberthreats evolve since the time you started McAfee in the 1980s?

McAfee: When I started McAfee, computer viruses were really the only real threat. Since that time technology has advanced in leaps and bounds both on the positive side and the negative side. Black hat hackers have awesome power today. I go to DEF CON every year, the ultimate hacking conference. It is horrifying to attend the demonstrations where people show you what they can do. Can tap into Tennessee Valley authority and shut down the electricity on the East Coast as simple as pie. Why it hasn't happened yet, I don’t know. Blind luck? They’re waiting for the right time? But if you knew what I knew about what was possible you would lose sleep at night. A 12 year old in Siberia if he has access to the Internet on a smartphone could wreak havoc.

Passcode: Speaking of threats, you also hired Chris Roberts, the security researcher who claims he hacked the United Airlines entertainment system as chief technology adviser on your campaign. Why him, and does this reflect a big concern you have about the airline industry?

McAfee: He’s a very good friend of mine. He’s been a friend for years. And he is one of the smartest hackers on the planet. In spite of what he did – you may say it was bad judgment – call it what you will. I’m less concerned about that. None of us are perfect. I’m more concerned about the human heart, and he has one. And if you have a pure heart, no matter what your faults are, you will stumble through the darkness and will eventually reach the light. I believe that. Call me what you want: A dreamer. I don’t care. I am 70 years old. I have seen more than most people have seen in their lifetime.

Passcode: So do you think hackers can really make planes fly sideways?

McAfee: Not only can you hack into an entertainment system and take control of the airplane, you can do it over the Internet now. It’s been proven. This is scary. We have the TSA which is trying to keep guns and armaments from getting on the airplane – which they totally have failed at – and in the meantime, that’s not going to be the threat. Why would someone try to get on an airplane with a bomb knowing he’s going to go down, when the same person could sit comfortably in their living room and bring down the plane over the Internet?

Passcode: Who is the biggest badass in security? Whose work do you respect, who has the most interesting research going on.

McAfee: Me of course.... I’m 70 years old and all I’ve done my entire life has been cybersecurity. And if I don’t have an interesting approach then I have failed. I’m certainly the oldest in the field.

Listen to the full interview with John McAfee on the latest edition of The Cybersecurity Podcast to learn more details including: Who would be the first world leader he would call if elected? What’s the surprising thing he would do in his first 100 days in office? What’s the one thing he would personally need in his own Oval Office? And: What does he think of the current McAfee antivirus product and company? 

Tune into the special episode, also featuring someone already in the White House: US Cybersecurity Coordinator Michael Daniel.

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