John McAfee provided me with unprecedented access to his true life story — including secrets he’s never revealed to anyone — and introductions to people who have known him for more than three decades.
‘McAfee Unplugged‘ was supposed to be John McAfee’s biography, and I was the biographer.
The biography never happened. After spending months researching McAfee’s life — based largely on first hand information from dozens of sources — I backed out of the project. There just wasn’t enough time in my schedule to write a book. My firm, Cybersecurity Ventures, demanded all of my research and writing cycles — and there was barely any time left for the book. It felt as if I was holding McAfee’s life story hostage.
After deciding to back out, I mailed McAfee photocopies of my handwritten notes along with a file containing my typed notes. I felt that he deserved the notes as it might help him share his story with a future biographer. McAfee subsequently agreed that I could use all of the notes for any blogs or articles I might write on him (I didn’t require his permission to write about him).
I met McAfee on a warm sunny day in October, 2015, at the Round House, a technology startup incubator located in Opelika, Ala. We spent the entire day together going one-on-one.
At first, McAfee was guarded with his words and treated me like an investigative reporter who was trying to dig up dirt for another sensational story about his time on the run as a fugitive, Belize, or anything else that makes for a good read in the media. I kept reminding McAfee that our time together was intended to help him share his life story with the world.
To lighten things up, I asked McAfee about his tattoos. I had previously seen photos of a shirtless McAfee and knew that he had a lot of skin art… and that he was going to be on the front cover of Inked Magazine in November 2015. This seemed like a good icebreaker after a slow start. McAfee took off his shirt to show me his latest ink — a large Liberty Bell sewn into his chest. I followed by rolling up one of my shirtsleeves to reveal a couple of tats on my right arm and shoulder. That was the hack. Call it a white hat hack because the intentions were good, and we both knew what was happening. McAfee had only seen my headshot photos in media blogs and articles — and as he explained it, I was the prototypical Silicon Valley writer in khakis, a button down shirt, and navy blazer. He was taken aback by my display – and launched himself into a monologue on why he enjoys hanging out in tattoo parlors. A socially engineered hack — on one of the world’s most famous hackers — by accident.
With McAfee’s mind and heart cracked open, I took everything in sight… without really thinking about what was going on. He trusted me, and he handed it all over to me — sex, women, drugs, alcohol, lies, secrets, money, family, what happened in Belize, you name it. McAfee was in tears when he recounted how he was repeatedly beaten mercilessly by a father who never showed him an ounce of love… a father who took teenage John’s shotgun, walked into the family bathroom, and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. By day’s end, both McAfee and I were exhausted from the emotional sharing.
I flew home with an extensive list of contacts and phone numbers – which included McAfee’s daughter, the names of some of his closest life relationships, and some rather sketchy characters. The list was dizzying — everyone from his drug dealer – to his bodyguard – to a prostitute – to a tech industry icon – to various people in Belize. I spent over a month phone interviewing dozens of people on the list. I let John know that since my reputation was on the line — nothing was getting written without fact checking and corroborating whatever significant events he shared with me.
From the outset, my main interest in McAfee was cybersecurity. I wanted to learn more about how he combated his first computer virus, how he started up, IPOd, and grew his namesake anti-virus company, and all things cyber. I was not expecting to find myself at the epicenter of McAfee’s soul and all of the connections that came with it. In retrospect, I really didn’t want to know the secrets. I’m a cybersecurity researcher, writer, and publisher. But to know McAfee the cyber scientist meant that I had to deal with his baggage.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything of substance on McAfee.
Showtime knocked on my door several months ago. Someone sitting behind a gmail address said he’d found some articles I wrote on McAfee, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in talking with Showtime about a documentary they were filming on him. It took a couple of tough responses from me before the assistant would reveal his full name — and the name of the producer, Nanette Burstein.
Burstein and I spoke on the phone for less than 30 minutes. It started off as an open ended discussion about John McAfee. She made it sound like Showtime was developing the story and looking for credible third parties who knew McAfee from different perspectives — business, personal life, his time in Belize, and other. I explained to Burstein that I had been planning to write McAfee’s biography, but then dropped out. She asked what I thought of McAfee. I explained that first and foremost, he was a cyber scientist — and one of the best I’d ever met. Then I shared my views on McAfee the entrepreneur. Burstein interrupted and framed our discussion squarely on Belize – which seemed odd to me. It was clear that I had information she hadn’t heard before – for instance details of McAfee’s daughter visiting him in Belize.. what she learned, what she thought, etc. Burstein sounded cordial but frustrated with me. It felt like she was looking for a ‘bad McAfee’ story… and wasn’t getting what she wanted. Our phone call ended with Burstein asking if I would travel into New York City for an interview which would be used in the documentary. I agreed. My research and quotes on cybersecurity appear in the media nearly every day – so this didn’t seem any different.
Showtime never got back in touch with me. I did have a follow up email exchange with Burstein and her assistant. They informed that after speaking with ‘another reporter who traveled to Belize’, they didn’t need an interview with me. Something sounded fishy. In another email exchange Burstein claimed that she couldn’t use me because of ‘journalistic overlap’, given I was McAfee’s biographer. Then I knew something wasn’t right. Burstein and her assistant knew in advance that I was McAfee’s ‘ex’ biographer, and that I was speaking on my own behalf. Plus they had invited me in for an interview.
A little research informed that Showtime and Burstein had already written their storyline well in advance of contacting me. “John McAfee: Guilty of Murder in Belize” a.k.a. “Gringo“. Being that I could not corroborate their story — or worse that I might conflict with it — I was not a ‘person of interest’ to them… only McAfee was. When I noticed the “other reporter” Burstein referred to — Jeff Wise — it immediately struck me that there was no original content in the Showtime documentary. I remembered this was the same Wise who wrote an article a few years ago titled “Exclusive: John McAfee Wanted for Murder” (which was not the case and a gross over-dramatization of McAfee, who was a person of interest at the time — meaning the authorities wanted to speak with him). The sensational headline got picked up by more media and McAfee was instantly guilty before being proven innocent. Turns out Wise isn’t a reporter in this case, he pretty much wrote the script for Showtime: “John McAfee: Guilty of Murder, Part II”.
If anyone thinks I have some sort of ties to McAfee and write to make him look good, they’re wrong. I have a high regard for John McAfee, cybersecurity expert. So much that I (only recently) asked him to join my firm’s informal board of advisers — which is an uncompensated and unofficial role and is limited to feedback on our cybercrime and cybersecurity reports. In terms of his personal beliefs, we are very different people. We do not share the same moral compass when it comes to many topics. I believe in God, he does not. I could go on with a long list of differences.
So, why am I writing this?
It is not to share McAfee’s secrets. He knows what they are and might decide to share them with another biographer one day. I’ll keep his secrets to myself. I was not hacking for notoriety or financial gain. I was supposed to be writing a book. Who knows… maybe McAfee won’t find another biographer and I’ll write the book one day after all.
Rather, I’m writing this to tell Showtime viewers that while McAfee is a prankster who enjoys media attention (and rankling reporters!), he tells the truth. In fact, the truth is so important to him that he had a shouting match with me after disagreeing on what a family member shared about him. It was something that wouldn’t have even made it into the book. But McAfee wanted the truth printed, or nothing.
McAfee shared numerous secrets and indiscretions from his life — during his pre-teen years, adolescence, early adulthood, employers prior to busting out with his anti-virus success, the early days at McAfee Associates — which could have been embarrassing or made him look bad. He shared stories that were not required for the book. But the truth was important to him.
I’ve also experienced an honest McAfee while wearing my hat as a reporter. In a blog on my firm’s site titled ‘WhatsApp Message Hacked By John McAfee And Crew‘, I wrote about McAfee hacking a WhatsApp message. What I wrote was short and sweet, and kept to the facts. McAfee was able to read a WhatsApp message (that he shouldn’t have been able to read). When he reported the feat — he went out of his way to say that he did not break WhatsApp’s encryption or otherwise hack WhatsApp’s software… and he pointed out a design flaw in the Android operating system. McAfee even engaged a third party forensics firm to authenticate his accounting of the hack. Anyone can fact check the story. And yet, one media property pounced hard on McAfee – starting out by calling him a liar in general and then criticizing him for saying he hacked a WhatsApp message. Numerous additional media chimed in — some throwing stones at McAfee — and some who backed him and corroborated his hack. McAfee was vindicated when a top cybersecurity firm put his hack up for an award — for best stunt hack of the year. A hack to draw attention? Yes. McAfee never said he doesn’t like to generate media attention.