john mcafee

John McAfee In Crazytown

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“The press has portrayed me alternately as a mad genius or a mad psychotic genius,” began the infamous John McAfee, speaking at Def Con–and why break that streak now? I must admit: when he’s crazy, he’s crazy like a fox. Ultimately, though, as insane and riveting as his tale is, what’s most interesting to me is the way he has weirdly come to symbolize his audience.

McAfee’s story, condensed: after refusing to pay a multimillion-dollar bribe in Belize, he instead donated to its government a slew of laptops infested with keyloggers and audiologgers, and amassed 17,000 hours of recordings which included evidence that the entire Belizean cabinet was in bed with people smugglers, money launderers, and the Sinaloan drug cartel. Hence his subsequent well-documented legal issues and stint as an international fugitive.

Now, apparently, he lives more or less on the run, half-deaf from an attempt on his life from a 17-year-old ex-lover. He says he and his wife have to replace their phones every week because they are quickly infested by “highly sophisticated” spyware courtesy of the cartel’s pet hackers, and the only thing keeping him alive is the dead-man’s-switch that will, upon his death, reveal all the evidence he has amassed.

It’s not clear to me whether his entire tale is even meant to be interpreted literally. He mused during his preamble: “If you have enough experience with psychoactive chemicals, you understand that whether I imagine it or experience it is ultimately inconsequential.”

Despite all this he has managed to found a Montreal-based start-up, which has pivoted from a mesh router to an Android app that scans your other apps’ permissions and flags problematic ones. (This is trivially easy.) Like the “17 different companies I founded while I was in Belize,” it won’t set the world on fire. But McAfee doesn’t need to matter as a founder, because inasmuch as he matters, it is, I think, as a symbol.

I’ve spent the last week here in Las Vegas aka Crazytown amid the hacker/info-security community, which consists in large part of cranky iconoclastic black-clad geeks, resolutely opposed to The Man … who, through no fault of their own, are increasingly becoming The Man, and don’t really know how to deal with the resulting existential crisis.

Most of the black-shirted pink-mohawked heavily-tattooed Def Con attendees, along with the con’s official materials, are anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-corporate … and yet, at the same time, Def Con is the little sibling of Black Hat, which swarms with employees and representatives of huge establishment companies, whose keynote speech was given last year–to an appreciative audience–by General Keith Alexander, then head of the NSA.

Both were founded by Jeff Moss aka The Dark Tangent, who sold Black Hat nine years ago for a reported $14 million but is still intimately involved with it, hosting and introducing its keynote. It’s like something out of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly; one day Moss/Tangent hosts a massive, expensive, corporate security conference, and then, the very next day, a younger, angry, rebellious hacker mob, whose avowed ethos is nearly opposite to that of the first group…without ever addressing that contradiction.

But I don’t mean to pick on him; he actually represents the whole infosecurity industry, writ small.

We live in an era whose defining feature is that everyone carries a supercomputer in their pocket, wirelessly connected to everyone else’s supercomputer and to massive server farms. The people who know how to penetrate, control, and deny access to those devices and networks have immense power. It’s awfully hard to have all that power and not become The Man.

And so: “information security officer” has become a C-level position. Senior security experts are in very high demand. Lucrative offers to sell out and join the system, often in some innocuous or objectively benevolent way, are everywhere; and as people get older, they’re more likely to accept them. Same as any industry–but this is one whose younger members identify as people here to hack the system, not someday join it, even if the intent is to subvert/improve it from within.

Hence McAfee, and his warm reception here. He’s an archetype of Def Con’s collective ethos, both good and bad, a cinematically awesome renegade / outlaw / trickster figure. And he’s also living proof, symbolically, that you can make your mark in the world, both technically and with a successful and famous startup, without selling out and turning corporate in any way; that you can accept everything life may offer and still remain fundamentally uncorrupted.

Alas, that too, it seems to me, is a story that–while based on some real experiences–is more aspirationally true than authentically so.