x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Newsmaker: James McAfee

A Silicon Valley legend, who years ago earned millions from his anti-virus software company, lived outlandishly on the lam before gaining a very different kind of fame.

John McAfee. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
John McAfee. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod

When you are the world’s best-known computer virus protection company and a name synonymous with the battle against the forces of darkness on the internet, there are certain things you don’t want to read about the man who put the name above your door.

Having him identified as a person of interest in a murder case and then go on the run across Central America with a girl 50 years his junior, while pursued by a posse of police and journalists, is probably pretty near the top of the list.

The antics of John McAfee, who actually sold his stake in the eponymous software firm to Intel nearly two decades ago, have surely redefined the old maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

McAfee’s life reads like a Hollywood script, even if the ending is still being penned. Indeed, the rights to the story have already been sold to a Canadian production company, in a deal apparently negotiated in hiding by McAfee himself.

There is no doubt that the 67-year-old software pioneer is some kind of genius. The bigger question is whether he is now as mad as a box of frogs. Or as the prime minister of Belize, where McAfee lived for the past five years, puts it: “I believe he is extremely paranoid, even bonkers.”

There is plenty of evidence for the claim. McAfee seems to have treated hiding from the police in a murder investigation as a huge game, providing rambling updates on his personal blog, “whoismcafee.com”. He has faked a crippled arm, padded out his face with chewing gum, disguised himself as a Guatemalan street peddler and claimed he almost sold a carved dolphin to a reporter from the Associated Press.

All this points to a man on the edge, whose notorious fondness for the practical joke seems increasingly to be an inability to distinguish between reality and paranoia. McAfee is so convinced “they” are out to get him, that he claims to change his IP address several times a day and use a third party to buy computers to throw off hackers. If he didn’t insist that his heavy use of drugs and alcohol had ended in the 1990s, you might begin to wonder.

How did Silicon Valley’s answer to Colonel Kurtz get this way? His origins are ordinary enough. Born in England at the end of the Second World War to a GI bride, McAfee moved with his parents to a small town in Virginia at the age of 2.

In an interview with the Financial Times, who caught up with him on the lam in Guatemala, McAfee described the town as “very conservative, provincial, Christian”, while his father was “an alcoholic and abusive”.

Still, friends from that time recall a lively, intelligent boy who did well at maths. After graduating from high school he studied for two years at local colleges before heading off on a road trip that ended in Silicon Valley with a job at the Lockheed Corporation.

By the time the age of computers began to seriously take off, in the late 1980s, McAfee was well placed to become a high flier. After reading a newspaper article about what turned out to be the world’s first computer virus, McAfee paid US$200 (Dh735) to a programmer to write a code that would defeat it. And so an empire was born.

At first the McAfee virus protection software was free, insuring its installation on tens of thousands of computers. Updates and corporate licences, though, would cost you. At one point the cheques were rolling in so fast that McAfee says he did not even have time to take them to the bank. Eight months after starting McAfee Associates, he was already worth $10 million.

His association with the company was short. Barely five years later, in the summer of 1992, McAfee went on US television to warn about the impact of a new virus called Michelangelo, which he claimed was about destroy millions of personal computers worldwide. In the event, Michelangelo failed to materialise, and within months, McAfee had resigned.

Left to his own devices and with, by most estimates, $100 million in the bank, McAfee soon began to drift out of Earth orbit and begin the long journey into the wackosphere.

At first it was the usual multimillionaire stuff; buying 20 houses around the world, including a $5 million beach house on South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico where he estimates he spent barely a week.

On the run from the material world, McAfee discovered yoga, setting up a retreat in Colorado and writing a book on the subject called Into the Heart of Truth.

Rather less spiritual was his obsession with what he claimed was a new sport – aerotrekking, an obscure and incredibly dangerous practice of flying long distances very close to the ground. McAfee based himself in New Mexico, surrounded by a group of acolytes who styled themselves “Sky Gypsies”.

Towards the end of 2006, his 22-year-old nephew flew one of the ultralight craft into a canyon wall, killing himself and a 61-year-old passenger. The $5 million lawsuit that followed effectively ended aerotrekking as a commercial proposition.

Worse was to come. The financial crash of 2008 hit McAfee’s investments hard, especially those in Lehman bonds, with some reports that he was now barely worth $4 million. Perhaps fearing that a judgement in the aerotrekking lawsuit could wipe him out, McAfee instead auctioned off his property portfolio at knockdown prices and fled to Belize.

Accompanied by his partner, a Canadian actress called Jennifer Irwin who he had met when she was still a teenager, McAfee set up court at a beachside compound called Ambergris Caye, a small island on the Caribbean coast of Belize.

Soon he was pursuing a new venture, claiming to be first to develop new antibiotic drugs from jungle plants and then on another compound that would boost libido. His neighbours were less sure, concerned more with the large dogs and armed guards that patrolled the compound.

The authorities also began to take a closer interest in McAfee, in particular the links between his security detail and local gangs.

On May 2, armed members of the Belize Gang Suppression Unit stormed the compound at Ambergris Caye, arresting McAfee and a 17-year-old girl, then unearthing what they claimed was an illegal drugs laboratory and a cache of weapons that included seven pump action shotguns.

McAfee claimed the raid was a reprisal for his refusal to pay $2 million in bribes to the local police. In the aftermath, his behaviour became increasingly eccentric, with reports that he had been seen wandering around town carrying a pistol and had left dozens of messages under the identity “Stuffmonger” on a Russian drug forum, claiming to have discovered the formula for a designer drug known as “bath salt”.

Then came the news, earlier this month, that McAfee was on the run. A neighbour, an American citizen called Gregory Faull, had been shot dead with a bullet to the head. Faull had lodged a complaint with the police about McAfee’s dogs and the authorities wanted to question him about the killing, while stressing he was not a suspect.

McAfee’s time on the run has been as bizarre as any episode in a bizarre life. Claiming he feared that turning himself in to the Belize police would result in his murder in custody, he instead took off with a team from Vice magazine.

Anxious to boast about its scoop, Vice posted a photograph of McAfee taken on an iPhone, one that unwittingly contained the GPS coordinates of his location. After learning that he was sitting at the edge of a hotel swimming pool in Guatemala, police soon took McAfee into custody.

At the time of writing, McAfee was sunning himself on Miami’s South Beach, having been deported by Guatemala to his country of origin. He has said he want to settle down to a “normal life”. Whatever that might be.

jlangton@thenational.ae

The biog

September 1946 Born in England to a British mother and a member of the US armed forces

1948 Moves to Salem, Virginia

1967 Studies mathematics at Roanoke College

1986 Creates software to nullify “Pakistani Brain” computer virus

1987 Founds McAfee Associates

1994 Resigns from the company and opens a yoga retreat

2004 Sets up aerotrekking enterprise in New Mexico

2008 Moves to Belize to escape a lawsuit caused by ultralight craft crash with reports he has lost his money

May 2012 Compound in Belize raided by police looking for drugs and arms

December 2012 Named as “person of interest” in murder of neighbour