DENVER — Computer security pioneer John McAfee pulls out his cell phone to stare at a notification on the screen.
“It says something changed in my account, please press next,” McAfee says. “I have the best (security) habits in the world and I cannot keep my phone secure.”
McAfee, whose name became synonymous with antivirus protection, says he’s no longer as worried about computer security. Now, he says, the danger comes from the camera and microphones we carry everywhere in our pockets, attached to our smartphones. It’s a “trivial” matter, he says, for a hacker to remotely and secretly turn on a phone’s sensors.
Think about that the next time you’re having a supposedly private conversation in your office, your phone sitting on the desk, he says. McAfee says he’s accustomed to the idea that potentially hundreds of people are listening to every conversation he has, and that his emails are widely snooped upon.
McAfee on Monday confirmed he’s expected to become the CEO of a small tech company called MGT Capital Investments, which will be rebranded and offer an anti-spyware product for mobile devices.
McAfee received a rock star’s welcome while speaking to a computer-security conference Wednesday afternoon, acknowledging his tendency to shock governments and institutions into action. The alternative, he says, is complacency from about the true risks posed by hackers and info thieves.
McAfee for years has been something of a cult figure in the tech world — he fled his home in Belize in 2012 after he was sought for questioning as a “person of interest” in the murder of a neighbor. He then landed in Portland, Ore., before he settled in central Tennessee, where he was once convinced assassins from Central America were tracking him. He’s now also running for president as a Libertarian.
Wednesday, he pointed out that foreign hackers have repeatedly attacked American infrastructure, including power grids, and said neither the government nor big business seems to truly appreciate how quickly society would collapse if large portions of the country lost power for even a few days. He also mused that perhaps people who couldn’t manage their privacy and identity protections might just fall by the wayside.
“We are teetering on an edge, not just as companies, not just as individuals, but as a nation and even as a world. We depend so much on our information science,” he says. “Believe me, this will be the new paradigm… and until you are touched, you do not understand the fullness of the risk.”
McAfee founded McAfee Associates in 1987, and Intel bought it for $7.7 billion in 2010. He used to own a yoga retreat in central Colorado.