McAfee has lived an interesting life since selling the anti-virus company McAfee to Intel (McAfee is now Intel Security) in the 1990s, with allegations of unlicensed drug manufacturing as well as being accused of murder when living in Belize. He also went on the run, during which time he claimed he faked a heart attack while being held in Guatemala. Little surprise then his Twitter bio promotes that he is at least ‘still alive'.
As part of moves to rebuild his career, and promote his latest projects, McAfee has re-entered the public speaking circuit and spoke at the Infosecurity Europe wrap-up event in London yesterday, honing in on government-requested software backdoors, privacy and surveillance as well as the activities of the NSA.
He said of software backdoors: “This is something we cannot stand. I am a hacker myself and have been a hacker my whole life but I am on the side of creating security software.”
“We cannot allow for a fearful government or institution to create weaknesses in the very software we're trying to protect. By putting backdoors in the software, we have given hackers the access we are trying to prevent” he said. He tentatively suggested that installing backdoors was the idea of politicians that didn't truly understand technology or what they were doing, and said that the human element is sign enough that backdoors will always be risky.
“People are human and if there is a backdoor, that access to backdoors will become available to hackers. Someone has to know there is this backdoor; the programmer, the company, the government agency that has access, and at some point one of those people in this chain is going to be in a situation where they are about to lose their house, their job, or they owe a lot of money...Disaster is coming.
“That person is then the weak link in the chain. Or someone's not going to get the raise they expected. We are human and the reason we have software is to prevent the human mistakes that we make.”
He said that hacking had now become more complex, comprising social engineering as well as highly-technical skills, and now with additional motives, including political.
On this, he said that people need to get their privacy back from overpowering governments keen on maintaining or even increasing their level of surveillance.
“We do not create governments to tell us what to do, what to think, to watch over us. No, we created a government to serve us, build roads and schools, things we need, not to say you might be the enemy.”
McAfee did, however, express relief at the US Patriot Act being rolled back, but was less assured by the actions in Europe, perhaps in light of the UK's campaign for new data retention laws.
“Thank god, they rolled back the Patriot Act, the NSA no longer listening in on phone calls. Here in the Europe, I don't think they're doing anything about it, if anything they're pushing it forward.”
He later added: “Security cannot function if everyone knows everything about everyone…If we give up privacy we give up civilisation and we cannot do that.
“We must take privacy back, and take our lives back…Your privacy is your last refuge.”
He compared the current situation to George Orwell's novel, 1984 , warning of surveillance too from Google and other vendors, “because they want to sell you things, they want to market to you”. He added that the growing computing power of smartphones was not matched by their security, thereby putting a “hole in our security.”
McAfee also spoke in brief about his ongoing projects at Future Tense Central, the security company he founded, which produces a number of interesting and – sometimes odd – products.
'D-Vasive', for instance, monitors apps and blocks them from using local device functionality, while 'Chadder' is a private messaging client. Then there is the more bizarre 'BrownList', for filing complaints with high-ranking personnel, and 'FetalBeats', for expectant mothers to listen to their baby's heartbeat from their own phone.