John McAfee, the creator of a programme that is among the most-used virus protection programmes worldwide, was a controversial figure, cryptocurrency promoter, tax opponent and fugitive who twice made long-shot runs for the US presidency.
He publicly embraced drugs, guns and sex, and had a history of legal woes spanning from Tennessee to Central America to the Caribbean.
Born in the UK in 1945 as John David McAfee, he moved to the US as a child and grew up in Virginia with a father who “beat him mercilessly” and killed himself when the boy was 15, according to Steve Morgan, who spent time with McAfee in Alabama in 2016 to talk about his life for a biography he’d been contracted to write. Morgan said talking about his father’s death was the only time during their long meeting that McAfee cried.
McAfee earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1967 from Roanoke College, Virginia and two decades later founded his eponymous company. At the time, Morgan said, he was operating a BBS, a bulletin board system that served as a precursor to the world wide web, and working with his brother-in-law.
When the first major computer virus, called “Brain”, hit in 1986, “John instantly dialled up a programmer he knew and said, ‘There’s a big opportunity. We need to do something. You know, we want to write some code to combat this virus,’” Morgan said. He called the program VirusScan and the company McAfee Associates.
“He was a true pioneer, not just as a security technologist but as one of the first companies to distribute software over the internet,” Morgan said.
McAfee lost a fortune in the global financial crash in 2008 and emigrated to Belize, where he cultivated the image of a shirtless, highly kidnappable new-age medicines kingpin, complete with armed bodyguards and payrolled gangsters. He also made a number of donations to local police.
Nonetheless, California chipmaker Intel bought McAfee’s company in 2011 for $7.68bn. For a time, Intel sought to dissociate the brand from its controversial founder by folding it into its larger cybersecurity division. But the rebranding was short-lived, and Intel in 2016 spun out the cybersecurity unit into a new company called McAfee.
In 2012 he was wanted for questioning in connection with the death of Gregory Viant Faull, who was shot to death in early November that year on the island in Belize where both men lived. McAfee was living with a 17-year-old girl. “I do have teenage girlfriends and many at a time,” he said in an interview included in a 2016 documentary.
In 2019 a Florida court ordered McAfee to pay $25m to Faull’s estate in a wrongful death claim. He refused to pay it, writing in a statement posted on Twitter that he has “not responded to a single one of my 37 lawsuits for the past 11 years”. He claimed to have no assets.
A Wired Magazine reporter who spent six months investigating his life that year recounted an incident in which McAfee played Russian roulette – repeatedly pulling the trigger on what he claimed was a loaded pistol, pointed at his head – to illustrate a point.
Somewhat incongruously, McAfee remained an ardent defender of digital security. He was particularly concerned by Google, telling the Guardian in a 2015 interview that the company “would have you believe if you have nothing to hide, why should you care if people know everything.”
“When you first meet someone, you don’t divulge your deepest secrets. If privacy doesn’t matter, would you be willing to give your wallet to a total stranger and let them go through it and write down everything they find inside? Then why on earth would we believe that if we’re not doing anything wrong, we shouldn’t care if someone has our information?”