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The tumultuous life and times of antivirus software pioneer John McAfee

The tumultuous life and times of antivirus software pioneer John McAfee
John McAfee  |  Photo Credit: Reuters
24 Jun, 2021

John David McAfee, found dead in a Spanish prison cell on June 23, was many things. The maverick inventor of the world’s first marketed antivirus software was also a self-proclaimed yoga guru, inventor of an aircraft game called ‘aerotrekking’ where small planes were flown across deserts (not a computer game), and a fugitive. What McAfee was not was your quintessential Silicon Valley entrepreneur. 

The outspoken entrepreneur, whose Twitter description reads “lover of women, adventure and mystery...”, spent a considerable time in 2019 living on a luxury yacht running away from an alleged tax evasion charge by US authorities. He even announced he would run for the office of the President while living on the boat with his family and dogs. 

McAfee was born to a British mother and an American father, a soldier in the US army, stationed at Cinderford, England in 1945. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics from Roanoke College in Virginia and moved on to work as a programmer at the NASA Institute for Space Studies in New York in 1968. Here he helped NASA with the Apollo programme, which was associated with putting the first man on the moon. 

His next few stints were at digital and print company Xerox as an operating system architect, analytics and engineering consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, and later at aerospace defence company Lockheed Martin. At Lockheed Martin, McAfee worked in mitigating the first computer virus for the IBM Personal Computer, called the ‘brain’.  The virus attacked floppy disks and would render about 7kb of memory unavailable at the disk operating system, and also slowed down the floppy disk drive.  

In 1987, McAfee founded McAfee Associates in Delaware where he developed and sold the world’s first anti-virus to market. There were a few other anti-virus providers at the time such as NOD antivirus, while a company called G Data Software created the ‘Ultimate Virus Killer’ aimed at a specific personal computing brand called the Atari ST platform. 

"When I first read about the Pakistani Brain virus, I'd never heard of a virus before, neither had anyone in technology," McAfee told the BBC in a 2013 interview.  

Two years after going public, McAfee sold his stake in the company he had founded. McAfee itself was eventually sold to Intel in 2010 for $7.6 billion. 

After his antivirus company, McAfee built an instant messenger named PowWow in 2000 and then joined firewall solutions provider Zone Labs as part of the board of directors. Zone Labs was eventually sold to IT security firm Checkpoint Software in 2003. 

By 2008, the entrepreneur had moved to the island country of Belize in the Carribean. In 2009, the New York Times reported that his fortune had dwindled from $100 million to $4 million. This was attributed to buying expensive real estate, which remained unsold owing to the recession of 2007. 

Moving away from antivirus software to real life antibiotics, in 2010 McAfee started QuorumX which manufactured herbal antibiotics which claimed to kill bacteria by interfering with their ‘quorum sensing mechanism’. In 2013 McAfee moved back to security through the company Future Tense Central, which manufactured D-Central, a secure computer networking solution. D Central would eventually also serve as an incubator for upcoming security startups. 

In 2016 he was appointed the CEO of a technology holding company called MGT Capital investments. During this period, McAfee drew widespread media attention for claiming to decrypt the iPhone or exploiting a flaw in Android through which he claimed he could read encrypted WhatsApp messages. At MGT, McAfee also took interest in the mining of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. This, he claimed, was a move to learn and deal with blockchain, which he said was an important technology for cybersecurity in the future. In 2018 he exited MGT and became the CEO of an enterprise cryptocurrency company called Luxcore. 

Sometime in 2019, the US government levied tax evasion charges against McAfee for allegedly failing to file income tax returns between 2014 and 2018. Also interestingly, in December 2019, McAfee tweeted that his life was in danger with a photo of a tattoo that read “$whackd”.  

“Getting subtle messages from U.S. officials saying, in effect: "We're coming for you McAfee! We're going to kill yourself". I got a tattoo today just in case. If I suicide myself, I didn't. I was whackd. Check my right arm,” he said. 

The Spanish authorities arrested him last year and charged with promoting fraudulent cryptocurrency practices. In March this year, he was indicted for an alleged cryptocurrency scam through pump-and-dump schemes. He was found dead in his prison cell just hours after the Spanish National court approved his extradition to the US state of Tennessee. Media reports said that McAfee was set to face 30 years in prison if he was to be extradited to the USA.