John McAfee, a pioneer in the development of antivirus computer software, died on 23 June 2021. News reports say the 75-year-old killed himself while in prison near Barcelona, Spain, where he was awaiting extradition to the United States to face charges of tax evasion.
McAfee gained widespread recognition in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As personal computer use took off, people began talking about ‘surfing the web’, and easy-to-use browsers such as Mosaic (soon to become Netscape Navigator) and Explorer began drawing more users into this new place of wonder called the World Wide Web.
(According to the Internet Hall of Fame, Jean Armour Polly, a librarian in upstate New York, wrote and published a guide to the internet titled Surfing the Internet in 1992 and “is often credited with coining the phrase”.)
Following close behind were creatures called hackers, generally portrayed as mischievous or malevolent young men, who created computer viruses with names such as Brain, Michelangelo and Chernobyl, designed to cause mayhem if not worse.
In 2008’s Inventors and Inventions volume 4, produced by British-based publisher Marshall Cavendish, McAfee is described as the “inventor of antivirus software”.
McAfee was born on 18 September 1945 on a US army base in Gloucestershire, Britain, where his American father and British mother were stationed. The family soon moved to Virginia in the US.
He graduated from Virginia’s Roanoke College with a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics, started a PhD in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State College in 1968, and then moved to northern California and the nascent technology hub called Silicon Valley developing around Stanford University.
The Inventors and Inventions article says he “held at least a dozen jobs during this time, most of which involved developing computer hardware or software”.
In an exhaustive and at times harrowing 2012 article for Wired magazine, journalist Joshua Davis wrote that after years of drug- and alcohol-fuelled chaos, followed by several years of sobriety, McAfee landed a job with aerospace and technology company Lockheed when the Brain computer virus hit in 1986.
Business technology news website ZDNet has called Brain “the first worldwide PC virus”.
It says Brain was the creation of Basit and Amjad Farooq Alvi, a pair of programmers from Pakistan, who wrote it to prevent people from pirating their software. They made “what was supposed to be a kill switch for illicit copies. But the design was flawed; the anti-copy software could duplicate itself – and did.”
ZDNet described Brain as working “by changing the boot sector of a floppy disk. When an infected floppy was put into a computer, it installed Brain in the computer’s memory, from where it infected new floppies as they were inserted.”
According to the Turkey-based TRTWorld website, “some estimates suggest that between 1986 and 1989, the Brain virus hit more than 100,000 computers”.
There was no secret regarding Brain’s origins, as the brothers included their names, address and phone numbers in the virus. “We were just showing off our skills to each other and trying to identify vulnerability in the DOS system,” Amjad says. “I didn’t think it would become so big.”
TRTWorld calls Brain “a benign virus”, not intended to erase data or damage hardware. But it opened the floodgates for new viruses, which used similar techniques to infiltrate computers and cause damage.
Among the people impressed by the brothers’ code-writing skills was John McAfee.
In a 2019 interview, McAfee told TRTWorld that he’d read about the virus in a California newspaper, “and I go, ‘how the hell did they do that?’ Nobody had ever thought about using software to act like bacteria and viruses. That’s a genius idea.”
McAfee studied Brain and wrote a program to counter it. “I posted it on my electronic bulletin board and two weeks later I had a million users,” he said.
Joshua Davis says McAfee started his business out of his home in Santa Clara, California. “His business plan: create an antivirus program and give it away on electronic bulletin boards. McAfee didn’t expect users to pay. His real aim was to get them to think the software was so necessary that they would install it on their computers at work. They did. Within five years, half of the Fortune 100 companies were running it, and they felt compelled to pay a license fee. By 1990, McAfee was making $5 million a year with very little overhead or investment.
“His success was due in part to his ability to spread his own paranoia, the fear that there was always somebody about to attack. Soon after launching his company, he bought a motor home, loaded it with computers, and announced that he had formed the first ‘antivirus paramedic unit’.”
In subsequent years McAfee sold all his interests in the company, and in 2010, Davis says, it was bought by chip-making giant Intel for $US7.68 billion.
His legacy also includes unsuccessful bids to become the Libertarian Party’s candidate for the US presidential elections in 2016 and 2020.
He’d lived for many years in Belize, the Caribbean country located on the north-east coast of Central America, but he was forced flee in 2012 after police sought to question him about the murder of his neighbour.
According to Bloomberg News, McAfee sought asylum in neighbouring Guatemala but was expelled because he’d entered the country illegally, and he returned to the US in December 2012.
In its obituary for McAfee, the Washington Post says that “despite his mounting legal troubles”, he became a successful “technology pundit and promoter of cryptocurrency”, presenting himself as “a cybersecurity guru, warning about the dangers hackers presented, and made paid appearances at conferences and on television”.
In March 2019, the Post says, facing increasing financial pressures from unpaid taxes and other legal battles, McAfee boarded his yacht, “the Great Mystery, and traveled from port to port in the Caribbean”.
The Post says that after being detained in the Dominican Republic “for allegedly carrying high-caliber weapons, ammunition and military-style gear, he hired local lawyers who managed to get him sent to England. By 2020 he had made it to Spain, where he was arrested and jailed while awaiting extradition to the US.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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