John McAfee in September 2013. (Photo: © Lipo Ching/TNS/ZUMAPRESS.com)
“Hello?” I said into my phone, confused.
I had just hung up after a 30-minute telephone interview with cybersecurity software pioneer, gun enthusiast and recently announced presidential candidate John McAfee when my phone rang again. It was the same Henderson, Tenn., number he’d called me from at the beginning of our interview, during which he said he’d been using security software to block Stingray wireless phone-tapping devices from listening in on his calls. Maybe he’d forgotten to say something important?
“Hello,” I said again. I heard his muffled voice. He seemed to be talking to a woman, perhaps his wife, who he’d mentioned was sitting next to him during our interview.
“I think from the interview that she likes me,” he said, and then I realized, after an entire conversation about how much he values privacy and all the preventive measures he takes to avoid being spied upon, McAfee had unknowingly tapped a button on his phone — maybe even butt-dialed? — and given me a window into his private conversation.
“She was giggling,” he went on. It’s true, I was. I listened to a few more minutes of faint chitchat.
“It was certainly better than everybody else,” he finally said, and then the line went silent.
Nothing said by the controversial software pioneer — who just three years ago was embroiled, although not charged, in a murder case in Belize — was particularly scandalous. But it was a telling bookend to our conversation, during which we discussed his self-created Cyber Party, how he’d fix the government’s security problems, and his plan to run a purely digital presidential campaign. Below is an edited, giggle-free version of our conversation. I hope he’ll still think it went better than the others.
Yahoo News: How would you address cybersecurity issues in the government?
John McAfee: The architecture of programs is responsible for most of the flaws. The way that the pieces are glued together and the way that they communicate controls function. [That] is very difficult to fix without tearing it down and starting over. Since computers first came out in the late ’70s, I fear that our government has evolved into a mishmash of garbage as far as architecture is concerned. The Russians and the Chinese have walked away with every single record with no problem whatsoever. How is this possible? We’re living in an age of cyberwarfare. The next war will not be fought with guns, bombs and bullets. It’ll be fought by a bunch of people sitting at desks who are trying to crack into the cybercontrol systems of the opposing country.
What do you think of tech regulation in general?
Regulation in itself makes my teeth grind. We’re talking about a fundamental human right, are we not? Obviously Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson could not have anticipated the Internet. But if they had done so, they would definitely have included access to it. Freedom of use for it, for every man, woman and child. The Internet cannot be allowed to be used by just the rich, the powerful or the government. It’s the equalizer. It allows the human mind to judge for itself.
I’m sitting in Opelika, Ala., right now, a town of 30,000 people who spent $400 million implementing a one-gigabit fiber-optic link to the Internet. Now, I want you to try to imagine what future-thinking people these people are. A town of 30,000. One of only six cities in America with this capacity. That’s why I’m here. These people know some things that some Americans don’t. This is going to be the fundamental thread that hooks this city to the rest of the world. And they don’t want any limit supply in terms of bandwidth.
By the way, someone pointed out today that I’m the first presidential candidate with a beard in 100 years. [Editors’ note: a bearded Charles Evans Hughes ran and lost in 1916.] What that tells me is I don’t even have to campaign. Statistically I can’t lose. How many times does black come up during a game of roulette in Las Vegas? At some point red has gotta come up.
Are you campaigning in Alabama?
My campaign is going to be purely Internet-based. I’m not going to be out shaking hands and kissing babies. We’ve created the very first fireside chat into your living room. We have software that will collate and parse and evaluate everyone’s response. If you have a question, we can find it here. I don’t care if there’s 200 million of you asking questions. Our software will parse it, and it will collate it, and take the 10 top questions that Americans have asked, and I will answer those questions. It’s kind of like Reddit, only me visually at a fireside chat with you, answering these questions.
Tell me about the Cyber Party. Did you coin that name yourself?
Yes. We stand for privacy, freedom and technology. Those are our three principles. We don’t have any privacy yet. With the fight against encryption and the urging of the NSA and others to put in backdoors to our data, privacy is all but gone.
Do you feel personally connected to this mantra because your privacy has been violated?
Of course my privacy has been violated in the past. I came back from Belize under the cloud of possibly running the largest meth lab in Central America and being a political spy. Do you think every branch of the government’s covert agency is not trying to listen to me? Of course they are. If not, then the government is foolish. Not that I’ve done any of these things. But the perception that I have should be enough to force them to ask, “So what’s that McAfee doing?”
I know for an absolute fact that Stingrays are constantly around me because I have software that tells me. I have Stingrays constantly trying to push different versions of operating systems down to my phone so they can listen to me and watch me. I am smart enough to at least realize what has happened and do a factory reboot of my phone, or throw the phone away. If I thought I was the only person in the room who [was being watched], I wouldn’t be out there campaigning right now.
What has the interest been so far?
We’re getting about 120,000 people a day that are visiting [the website]. I’m not sure about donations. I haven’t even asked about them. We’ve been in chaos since we began.
How did you find your campaign manager?
One of the early Google employees, who I can’t name, left with more money than you could ever possibly spend and started a whole bunch of other companies. And through that process, he managed to acquire around him a group of extraordinarily bright people. One of them is a political scientist, Drew Thompson. He’s my campaign adviser. He has been a godsend in the past five days, sitting with me in interviews and giving me a cut signal next to his throat, to say, “You’ve gone far enough, you’ve crossed the line.” He’s not here right now, so I do not know whether I crossed the line in this interview.
Well, we’ll find out soon, won’t we?
We probably will.