LGR Tech Tales – McAfee’s Wild Ride

LGR Tech Tales – McAfee’s Wild Ride


In 1987, John McAfee launched “McAfee VirusScan,” a program which quickly became a leading solution for protecting computer users from malicious code, resulting in McAfee and his company seeing huge success, while jump-starting the entire anti-virus software industry. But nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that willingly uses the software, and the man himself has been accused of everything from running a drug trafficking ring, to raising a private army in Belize, to murdering his neighbor. What happened? This is “LGR Tech Tales,” where we take a look at noteworthy stories of technological inspiration, failure, and everything in between. This episode tells the tale of McAfee’s anti-virus software and its eccentric creator, John McAfee. Despite being born in a U.S. army base in England in 1946, John David McAfee soon moved with his family to a house in Roanoke, Virgina in the United States. Growing up there wasn’t easy by any means, with his alcoholic father frequently beating him and his mother, and then committing suicide when John was fifteen years old. Soon after, John attended Roanoke College, eventually earning a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics. But, perhaps due to his upbringing, McAfee had a hard time trusting anyone. In his own words, he stated, “You can trust no one.” “It’s not a cynical thing. I trust people to be people, to act in their own self-interests.” “If you understand that, you can use that!” And use that he did. Throughout college, he came up with a scheme to earn money that involved selling fake magazine subscriptions. He’d go door-to-door, telling each resident they’d won a free subscription to some periodical, and all they’d have to do is pay the shipping fees. The con worked perfectly, and he then spent his money on a combination of alcohol and pursuing a Ph.D. at Northeast Louisiana State College in 1968. But McAfee was kicked out for sleeping with one of his undergraduate students, and from here, began a career as varied and chaotic as anything you’ll ever hear about. While applying for jobs, he realized he could just create an impressive, fake resume, and that some employer, somewhere, would accept it. One of these was a job programming punch cards for computer systems at Univac in Bristol, Tennessee. Another was at Missouri Pacific Railroad, where he used an IBM computer to schedule and optimize train routes, often while high on LSD or DMT. After a particularly bad trip while on the job, he left the company and moved out to Silicon Valley in California, where he held a dozen or so jobs over the next decade. One of these was at a computer data storage company called OMEX in the city of Santa Clara. It was here that McAfee says he was at his worst, downing bottles of Scotch, snorting coke, popping Quaaludes while at work, and then doing more when he got home. He was paranoid, alone, and often thought of ending his life, like his father did. Then, in 1983, he got the help he needed from a therapist, and then by joining Alcoholics Anonymous. After some recovery time, finally he was able to focus and ended up joining the massive aerospace corporation, Lockheed. It was during this time that he heard about Brain, the first computer virus on the IBM PC platform. Created in 1986 by two brothers in Pakistan, the virus had spread across PCs around the world in just under a year. In case you’re not aware, a computer virus works in a similar way to biological viruses, by injecting a part of itself into host files or other parts of the computer. However, not all viruses are meant to destroy things, and the original Brain virus was one of these. The brothers simply wanted to know how far their program could spread, and even included their contact information in the source code, so people could let them know if they got their virus. So, this one was pretty innocuous, and viruses may not have been a widespread problem yet, but this was enough to make John sit up and take notice. He had the knowledge to remove the Brain virus himself but realized the majority of computer users probably did not. This was the inspiration for him founding McAfee Associates in 1987 in his house in Santa Clara, California. He then bought a 27-foot Winnebago, packed full of computers and equipment, and traveled around the country in what he called “the first anti-virus paramedic unit.” Like “Ghostbusters” for computer viruses, he would get a call and then drive over to the home or business, and search for “virus residue” on their computers, and then fix it on the spot. He later automated this process by creating a program he called “VirusScan,” which he gave away for free on electronic bulletin board systems. The idea of making this free was that home users would find it so valuable, they’d also want to install it at their office, and, when these businesses wanted to install “VirusScan,” he would charge a fee for installation and continued technical support. To gain even more exposure, McAfee authored the book “Computer Viruses, Worms, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs, and Other Threats to Your System.” All of this fed into the same types of fears John himself had, and everyone from home users to Fortune 100 companies lapped it up. By 1990, he was earning five million dollars a year, and, as the viruses increased, the licenses just kept rolling in. But things started to unravel in the early ’90s. First, there was the Michelangelo virus scare, largely drummed up by McAfee himself on national news programs and in newspapers. He frequently stated his belief that this new virus could take out fifty thousand to five million computers overnight, around the world. “McAfee VirusScan” sales soared as a result. Everyone braced for this huge attack, and nothing really happened. People started to wonder if McAfee and his “VirusScan” software was all it was cracked up to be, even accusing him of deliberately creating the Michelangelo scare to push sales. John continually denied this, but the backlash was immense, eventually leaving the company and selling his final shares of stock in 1994. Sometime afterward, McAfee “VirusScan” and its library of related products started to really go downhill. For one thing, the market was flooded with competing anti-virus software solutions, from the likes of Norton and Central Point, so the company kept bundling more and more tertiary products to stay competitive. And it seemed like the bigger the company and the McAfee bundle got, the worse the product became. And it’s not like you could always just not download it, either, because McAfee software was pre-installed on most new computers due to their licensing agreements. And, while it was still free, it eventually became a trial instead, so you’d have to pay to continue using it. Say “hello” to annoying pop-ups and error messages unless you uninstalled it, and good luck doing that! Even Mr. McAfee himself has said he dislikes McAfee software now, due to how bloated, unstable, and annoying it’s become. Furthermore, putting his name on the product has caused him all kinds of grief. Not only do many people associate him with software that they hate, but hackers have often chosen him as a prime target, resulting in him constantly changing devices, IP addresses, and locations in order to try and remain secure. And he has plenty of other reasons to do so, when you hear the rest of his story. Since leaving McAfee Associates and starting a variety of other companies throughout the years, he’s found himself in hot water with everyone from local police forces, to governments, and even intelligence agencies. For a while, he was on the run from the government in Belize, after being accused of everything from starting a private, militarized army, to making and distributing illegal drugs, to murdering his next door neighbor while high on bath salts or something. His home was raided, his dog was killed, and his property was eventually burned down under suspicious circumstances. To this day, he’s never been charged or convicted of anything, but it’s resulted in him living in an even more paranoid state than before. He’s reported everything from attempted hits on his own life, to wiretapping, and hijacked computers, to agents spying on him in trees, near his home. And, in 2015, he’s running for President of the United States as the head of his own political party, the Cyber Party, appropriately focusing on issues like online privacy, security, and domestic surveillance. As for the “VirusScan” software itself, Intel bought the company in 2011, and has since renamed “McAfee VirusScan” to “Intel Security,” since the McAfee name has been tainted fifty different ways, and they don’t want any part of that. This software and its creator’s roller coaster ride of prominence and disdain and everything in between is nothing short of spectacular, and for reasons that seem almost unbelievable. In fact, some people don’t believe some of it. But, whatever you make of it, the story of the virus scanner program from your old computer is far more entertaining than it has any right to be. And it’s not over yet. If you enjoyed this video on strange individuals and iconic, but flawed, software, then, well, you’re in the right place. This channel and this particular show is about that kind of stuff for the most part, so why not subscribe if you would like to see more of it, or you can just check back for new videos every Monday and Friday. And you can always check out Twitter and Facebook, if you’d like to do some social stuff, as well as Patreon, if you’d like to support my show financially. And, as always, thank you very much for watching.

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