Some call him “Master of Paranoia”. The life of this man is the life of adventure – a scientist, a software developer, he developed new antibiotics in the heart of the jungle, drugs and guns are not an oddity for him. Luxury and poverty, freedom and jail – this man has tasted it all. Today we talk to the man of the legend – John McAfee is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Hi, John. It’s very nice to have you on our program. So you’ve lead a very unconventional life – you’ve had drugs, millions, women, law suits, guns, fleeing the United States, living in the jungle, murder suspicions, then escape back to the US. What are you up to right now?
John McAfee: Well, right now I’m working on a project to provide more security for the internet, not just against hackers but also against, what everyone knows, is government spying against the American citizens. It is natural, I think, for governments to want to spy on their populations in some circumstances, but it’s also natural, I think, for people to want their privacy. So, I’m working on a product which will ensure privacy for American citizens.
SS: Do you still have trouble with a law in the US? Which is what you initially fled from…
JM: No, I have no trouble with a law here in the US. I really didn’t have trouble with the law in Belize. I left Belize because of an ongoing feud between myself and the government which ended badly. But here in America I have been for a year, I have no problem with the US government – I’m a tax paying citizen, and I’m a productive citizen, and I’m treated very well by the authorities here. I’m working on a couple of movies, a couple of books, eight biographies are being written – that keeps me busy, and my own technical projects. So, I keep very busy. I live in Portland, Oregon, very beautiful part of America.
SS: For your age, and I believe you’re 68, right? You just look amazing; you have this crazy energy level of a young man. You’re almost like Dorian Grey. What do you do?
JM: Thank you very much for the compliment. I‘m not sure what I do, I just get up early and work hard, I don’t eat right, I sometimes smoke cigarettes, I do all the wrong things. I’m not sure, the comparison to Dorian Grey is a little bit disconcerting because Dorian Grey, was, in fact, a very cruel and evil person, I hope that part is not applied.
SS: No, we’re just talking about looks.
JM: I’m not sure, again I thank you for the compliment. I’m feeling younger every moment as you talk to me that way.
SS: You claim you’ve stayed sober from drugs and alcohol for over 37 years. Although, in some ways you appeared to almost advertise drugs. Where do you stand? I just want to make sure and be clear - are drugs bad, evil and they should be banned, or people should make their own choice?
JM: Well, I think people need to make their own choice in every aspect of their lives. Once you become an adult, a freedom of choice is an innate right, I think. I have never advertised drugs, in fact, I advise everyone including my daughter, my close friends not to take drugs under any circumstances. I did so in the past, a lot of drugs, actually, so I do have experience, very negative experience from drug use. But people should be allowed make their own choice. I’m not trying to advertise drugs; I’m not trying to get people, other than my close friends and relatives, to not do drugs. It’s your personal choice. Your choices in life will come back to you, and you’ll learn yourself what is right and wrong for you.
SS: The Silk Road was busted as the online black market. What do you make of that?
JM: That was shut down. You can’t stop these things, there has always been a black market, an underground black market for anything. You know, people can buy illegal guns… drugs are really black market items, you know, human trafficking. These things existed since the beginning of man, and now that we have the electronic age you cannot expect that that will not also occur in the internet, in the electronic world. The fact that it was shutdown was a mistake on the part of the founder, but trust me, someone will come up with the equivalent that simply can’t be shut down.
SS: Talking about the electronic age, technology in your opinion, does it empower or enslave you?
JM: It does both, and again there is where you have freedom of choice. Technology has given us the smartphone which will allow us to communicate across the world, sometimes looking at the person’s face while we’re speaking. It allows us to access information, powerful information while we‘re travelling on trains or buses, or sitting in the restaurant or in our office. At the same time, it can enslave, and if you look around, you’ll see those who are enslaved. You can walk into many restaurants at lunch time and look at the people, over half of them are not looking at the partner or the person they are sitting across the table front, and they are looking down at their smartphones and texting. Sometimes everybody is doing that. That seems like slavery to me, where you’re enslaved to the device, to the point that you completely block out human presence. I think that’s a very bad sign. We need to use technology for what technology is intended for, automobiles to get to places faster, telephones so that we don’t have to run across town to talk to somebody. When they become our masters, then we become the enslaved.
SS: I want to talk a bit about “D-Central” – it’s a decentralized, encrypted wireless network that you’ve been working on. Trying to figure out the motives behind it, are you worried about everyone being spied on, or are you making a political stand? Do you have a political stand?
JM: I have no political stance. I believe that it does not matter eventually, what party is in power, the political process goes on as it always will. Power corrupts; people in power tend to do what all people in power do. I don’t have a political stance. I do have a stance as an individual, as a member of society. I do not want someone looking through my bedroom window, whether it’s an impartial observer or not, whether they are going to prosecute me or not. I want some privacy, to do the things that we, as human beings, need privacy for. And we’re losing that, we’re losing that to a great extent. And it’s not just the NSA by the way, that is spying on us, I mean the NSA was the one that was first to be outed by Edward Snowden, but I can guarantee that all other covert government agencies, of which there are more than 15, are doing the same things – the CIA, FBI, Military Intelligence. We know it’s happening, and that alarms me, truly alarms me, that’s not what we created government for. We didn’t create a government that could watch over us and keep us safe from ourselves, we created a government that could provide facilities to make life reasonable – roads, schools, all the things that governments should be doing. This is simply not correct, and so I needed to do something.
SS: Talk to me about ‘D-Central’. Is this something that can be globally engaged, or it’s more of a local thing?
JM: It can definitely be globally engaged, it’s a completely flexible and moving localized network, where every other unit within the quarter-mile is directly communicating with your unit. We have relays, we can relay things across the city, the state, the country or the entire planet. It will not replace the internet, certainly not at first, it is an augment to the internet, it’s a device without a screen, it’s an on\off switch, you can drop it in your pocket, it communicates with your smartphone. So, if you’re on the internet with the smartphone you can do whatever you’re doing. If you want to send someone a private message, something to your sweetheart, and you want to say something juicy, or to your business associate talking about a plan that you don’t want your competitors to know about, then you switch to the private network which is ours, and everything is absolutely secure. If you intercept the packet it has no name attached to it, or location either. There is no way to tell who was sending what to whom, and it is all encrypted, using an encryption technique that neither the NSA nor any other agency was involved in. It simply cannot be seen – if it can’t be seen then it can’t be hacked.
SS: You know, Brazil is trying to create the BRICS Cable, an Internet system independent of the US and Britain, and that’s to avoid NSA spying. Do you back that idea?
JM: Well, it won’t fly for the long term because any system that is completely disconnected from the internet will suffer from lack of totality. You cannot get a bridge from one network to another network which provides the security that you need, because once you get to the internet – the big network - it’s all gone and it’s fair game again. I think that a governmental or a private entity which is not global will have a very difficult time flying.
SS: Have you ever suspected the NSA of spying on you personally?
JM: Well, that’s an interesting question. To be frank with you, given my public exposure and my past life I would be shocked if the NSA was not spying on me, nor the CIA, nor the FBI. I mean I think about it. You know, for example, two months of last year I was [suspected] as a potential meth-lab manufacturer, a possible murderer, someone involved with a foreign government, and back in the States can you imagine if someone said: “ By the way, what is McAfee doing?” and they say “Oh, we’re not watching him!” That would be strange, wouldn’t it? Or perhaps I really am paranoid.
SS: No, that would be strange indeed…
SS: I heard you say that if you were Google and the government asks you for information, you’d hand it over just like Google did. Why?
JM: That I would hand it over?
SS: Yes. Is that something you said?
JM: Keep in mind, the government does not come and just politely ask you, and say: “Oh gee, will you, please, hand over this information.” The government comes with a series of various scare powers, auditors, or the potential for auditors, regulations and rules that could shut you down. I mean, if you were to absolutely say ‘no’ to the NSA, you know, and from Google’s position at this early point in Google’s life, it might mean the end. And once I said “I would”, I said that giving the same circumstances that Google is in, I would probably do the same thing. I’m not going to structure my system and my company in the same way the Google is. There will be overseas locations that I can continue operating if the US government wants to shut me down. In my case I would definitely send them away, say ‘no’. This is the problem, we use the US regulations and the US system to create our businesses and then we’re in their hands, in their power. You would be crazy if you were Google not to give them the information.
SS: From an observer’s point of view I can say American society is increasingly unhappy with what’s going on in their country and their government. Where do you stand?
JM: Well, this is America and I’m an American, I was born and raised here. I love my country. That does not mean I love the political process or the political evolution. Obviously, we cannot be happy, not in that our every move could be watched by someone in the government, that’s simply not acceptable, not in this country. And we look at the government excesses, the total waste of money, you know, hundred million dollars for piece of software like the Obamacare implementation, that appears to be useless. We’re hard working, you know, we work hard, we pay our taxes and many of us Americans are barely getting buy – paying our rent, paying our mortgage, paying our food, supporting our kids, sending them to school. And we see these excesses right in front of us, it’s such a waste. Who could be happy, seriously?
SS: What operating system do you use on your computer?
JM: I have a lot of computers - I use both Apple computers, MACs, I use every known brand and version of Windows. They are all the same to me, really. I mean nothing is completely secure, nothing is completely satisfactory, whether to use MAC or Windows, there is always something that people are complaining about, and that is the nature of life. I’m living for the MACs these days this because I’m getting older, I don’t want to continue to learn the new versions of Windows that are coming out, but that’s my personal preference and both are equal.
SS: You know Richard Stallman, who we spoke to not long ago, calls Apple and Microsoft software ‘malware’. I know that you’ve sold McAfee antivirus like 15 years ago, but it’s a pretty annoying thing like it keeps popping up on my computer all the time. Could it be used for spying, do you think? Or is it used for spying?
JM: Of course, any piece of software can be used for spying. You have no idea how simple it is for a program to put ‘a back door’ into a system. ‘Back door’, to explain it simply, is a way for the program or for anybody that has a special code to log on to the software and take control. This happens all the time. In fact, there are applications that you can buy for multiple variety of operating systems called ‘keystroke loggers’ that will watch every keystroke that is used in logs and then send that information to any address that you like. With that information you can get a person’s passwords, you can log into their e-mail, you can turn on the camera on a laptop if the case is open and see what’s happening in the room, and if it’s closed you can turn on the microphone and listen to what’s happening. This is trivial. People don’t understand how widespread this is, for example, if you use the Bank of America application on an individual phone you have to click ’yes’ to agree to the terms. Terms are going for pages and pages, nobody reads them; I do sometimes. If you read the terms it gives the Bank of America the right to turn on the camera on your phone anytime that it wishes, and you’ve given them global permissions that they don’t have to notify you. I know why they do it. I mean, if you empty your bank account and then say “That wasn’t me, someone stole my phone” They will all go, “Well, he certainly looks like you”. But still, it’s scary – if they can do it, anybody can do it. We have become lax in our vigilance of what we do, we have allowed people at the NSA and Bank of America, and probably thousands of others, to look and hear what we’re doing because we just don’t pay attention.
SS: Oh my God, that Bank of America’s story is kind of crazy. I know Kim Dotcom is your personal hero! What is it that inspires you so much about him. Would you want to do with him together?
JM: Well, I’m not saying he is my personal hero; I’m saying he is merely one of the leaders in the industry that I admire. You can’t deny that he is a leader in the industry: he single-handedly, got double-digit percentage of all the internet traffic, I mean, that’s no mean feat. We have demonized him because his site was used for, you know, file-sharing of an illegal nature, but the telephone is used for illegal purposes all the time, and we don’t take telephones away from people. We’ve become very paranoid in our relation to the internet, much of that because of Hollywood and the music industry. I don’t believe in that, and I think that Kim Dotcom did the great thing in the software he had developed. Of course, every new development is going to be used by crooks and thieves - it is the way the world works.
SS: That was going to be actually my second question because we talked about encryptions and it can hide you from government’s gaze, and that’s great. But it also creates all sorts of ways to help criminals. Where is the middle ground?
JM: I don’t think there is a middle ground. I think that you cannot pre-emptively restrict your freedoms because of the fear of how something might be used. Everything, that has ever been developed, has been used for a bad purpose. Baseball bats which are fun for, you know, baseball players to hit balls, you know, they’ve also been used to beat people to death. I mean, we just cannot restrict ourselves because something might be used in a wrong way. And if you look at what the device is, I mean privacy. Good Heavens! What is worth the price of losing your privacy? I can’t think of anything.
SS: On a different note, John. I want to talk about the antibiotic that you have been working on in Belize. Is it distributed in the United States? Does it have any distribution at all? Moreover, who does it help?
JM: That product was abandoned when the Belizean government stormed my laboratory and destroyed half-million dollars with the property. At that point, I abandoned the jungle and went back to stay in San-Pedro island. It was simply too dangerous for me to live in the interior any longer. Belize is a dangerous country; if you look at statistics, it is the murder capital of the world based on murder rates per capita. And I took a long look at my situation and realized that if I stayed and continued the research I had a likelihood of meeting a bad end, so I abandoned it, went back to San-Pedro and that’s one the things, perhaps, that I do regret doing, but I simply could not pursue it further.
SS: Is that antibiotic dead? Is it all over?
JM: Certainly my part of it, yes, and it’s tragic because the research is based on a new concept called ‘Quorum-sensing’, which means that bacteria communicate between themselves of the same species and also with other species of bacteria. We didn’t even know it existed until about ten years ago and it opens up massive avenues of hope for all kinds of disease. Unfortunately, I needed access to the jungle plants along the rivers in order to get samples of ‘Quorum-sensing’ compounds developed by the plants and I can’t do that anymore.
SS: You know, I’m thinking with all your enterprises, the anti-viruses, the antibiotics, now the ‘D-Central’…Is it like a Messiah syndrome because you want to save people, you want to save the world, or are you just a good businessman?
JM: I hope I do not have a Messiah complex. My interest really is not in the saving the world, I think that’s a vainglorious occupation. It’s simply, we don’t know what is right for the world. I’m curious and my curiosity is what drives me. I’ve got into the computer viruses field because the concept first came up and I read about it the next day in the paper and thought: “Wow, that’s fascinating!” and started thinking about it and wrote a program to combat it - that became a business. The same thing when I started Tribal Voice, there was no instant messaging, and e-mail was sort of tedious and time-consuming. So, I thought, “There’s got to be a better way” and came up with instant messaging. The same thing with all of my projects: I hear the concept, like the concept of ‘Quorum-sensing’ - “Wow, bacteria communicate with each other! How can that be used?” Not that I’m against helping humanity, I certainly want to help humanity, but it’s not what drives me, it really isn’t. It’s a curiosity. just to be frank.
SS: Really, briefly, because the program is coming to an end. Many would also argue that you’re the master of paranoia, and you’ve capitalized on it. Do you suffer from it though?
JM: People called me paranoid when I was running from the Belizean government but honestly - when you’re hiding in the jungle, and in ditches, with people trying to shoot you, is that paranoia? Maybe, but at least its real. I don’t consider myself paranoid, I consider myself cautious. People also point to the beginning of the virus industry, where a virus called Michelangelo made great headlines and I was talking about it. It was a real virus and it was a real problem. The fact that then I came out ahead in the process had nothing to do with paranoia and everything to do with my competitive capacities and my technological competence. So, I don’t know if I’m paranoid... I’m just something that I am.
SS: Thank you very much for this interview. That’s all that time we have for today folks. Our guest was legendary programmer, John McAfee. Thanks for watching and tune in for the next edition of Sophie&Co.