John McAfee plans inexpensive gadget to thwart NSA snooping
By Tracey Kaplan • SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS
S AN JOSE, Calif. — John McAfee lived up to his reputation as tech’s most-popular wild child, electrifying an audience recently with new details of his plan to thwart the National Security Agency’s surveillance of ordinary Americans with an inexpensive, pocket-size gadget. • Dubbed “Decentral,” the as-yet-unbuilt device would cost less than $100, McAfee promised about 300 enthusiastic engineers, musicians and artists in San Jose. • “There will be no way (for the government) to tell who you are or where you are,” he said in an on- stage interview with moderator Dan Holden at the inaugural C2SV Technology Conference + Music Festival last month.
LIPO CHING SAN JOSE (CALIF.) MERCURY NEWS Anti-virus software pioneer John McAfee said that if the U.S. banned the sale of Decentral, he’d market his device abroad.
And if the U.S. government bans its sale, “I’ll sell it in England, Japan, the Third World. This is coming and cannot be stopped.”
The ambitious — some would say quixotic — project is the latest chapter of McAfee’s colorful life.
The antics of the pioneer of anti-virus software have included his widely publicized flight last year from Belize, where he remains wanted as a “person of interest” in the shooting death of his neighbor.
Even so, he remains an icon in the annals of Silicon Valley’s history of entrepreneurship. In 1989, he founded the anti-virus software company that bears his name, and he once was worth $100 million. In 1994, he ended his relationship with the company and moved to Colorado.
During the interview, the 68-year-old, who wore light blue cargo pants and a black sweatshirt, commented on a wide range of topics, from how quickly he gets bored once one of his creations comes to fruition (including the software security company he founded) to how yoga helped him 30 years ago to quit using drugs, including his favorite: psychedelic mushrooms.
It was a talk bound to appeal to the young audience, which broke into frequent applause. Among the group was his new wife, Janice Dyson. The 30-year-old said in an interview afterward that she is a former stripper. The couple met in Miami, where McAfee went after being deported from Guatemala.
“I keep him grounded,” she said.
McAfee outlined what some might regard as a pie-in-the-sky plan to finish the first prototype of the Decentral in six months. He said the gadget is called Decentral because, by communicating with smartphones, tablets and other devices, it will create decentralized, floating and moving local networks that can’t be penetrated by government spy agencies.
The design is in place already for a version whose range will be three blocks in the city and a quarter-mile in the country, he said. The device will be compatible with Apple iPhones and Google Android-based phones.
As far as consumers’ appetite for such a gizmo, he said: “I cannot imagine one college student in the world who will not stand in line to get one.”
Commuters also will find it useful, he said. Neighborhoods will be better able to fight crime because Decentral will include an option that sends an alert if there is a burglary or other crime.
McAfee said the idea for the device came to him well before computer analyst and whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked National Security Agency documents this summer that exposed widespread monitoring of U.S. citizens’ phone calls and Internet communications. But with Snowden’s actions, “it became the right time” to make Decentral real, he said.
At the end of the 75-minute discussion, McAfee gamely took questions from the audience about subjects such as what advice he would give teens (do what you love) to what he fears (his wife, he joked). In response to a question about marijuana, he made clear that he doesn’t embrace every aspect of the youth culture.
He said he liked pot users when he sold drugs decades ago because their “lives never go anywhere and they remain customers.” He added: “Marijuana is a drug of illusion; it creates the illusion that you’re doing great things when all you’re doing is sitting on the sofa growing a beard.”