The Escapist sat down with tech’s most infamous personality, John McAfee, to discuss why he believes criminal hackers around the world are hoping for an FBI win in its standoff with Apple.
The debate of privacy versus security is neither new nor without controversy. One of the most contentious cases in recent history is unfolding now, and has pitted the federal government against Apple. Last month, a District Court Judge ordered Apple to assist in a government investigation by creating a new customized iOS firmware that would weaken its established security features. This would allow the FBI to obtain the passcode for an iPhone that belonged to Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. The order was issued based on the All Writs Act of 1789, a centuries-old federal statute that reads “The Supreme Court and all courts established by Act of Congress may issue all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law.” This was met with opposition from Apple CEO Tim Cook who, in a firm and lengthy response, revealed that the company would challenge the order.
This is a case that has all of the earmarks of a blockbuster film – a potentially overreaching government, a push back by a company, terrorism, and the total lack of public agreement on the topic. And, of course, John McAfee, a man who some hail as a voice of reason and others discount as a grandstanding opportunist.
In what can only be described as my most colorful and candid interview to date, McAfee opened up about his decision to not only stand with Apple against the FBI, but also to become the most vocal public figure to have weighed in on the matter. The 70-year-old cybersecurity expert and Libertarian presidential candidate recently extended a very public offer – that he would crack the iPhone for the FBI so that Apple would not be forced to create this new software. There are many skeptics who question whether McAfee would be capable of doing this if the FBI isn’t even able to. McAfee has a simple explanation for that – according to him, the FBI is able to access the phone without Apple’s assistance. “The FBI can do it. I know they can do it. And if they can’t, our nation is in deep trouble, because any other nation on this planet can do it. And if they can’t do it, and I don’t believe that, but if they can’t, then give it to me because I can do it, along with about 10,000 other people in this country.”
I made an enemy of the FBI which is not a very smart thing to do. I wish other people would stand up. I feel alone up here
Frequently brazen, McAfee shared his motives, his prediction on the future should Apple be compelled to comply with the FBI’s demands, the implications that such a failure would have for the average American citizen. McAfee is fully aware of the things that many individuals and publications alike are saying about him – he says they think he’s crazy. However, his frustration was more focused on the lack of other public figures stepping up to discuss the matter, saying that it is “very lonely.”
“I stepped onto the stage, and it’s very lonely because I’m being trashed right and left, and I made an enemy of the FBI which is not a very smart thing to do. I wish other people would stand up. I feel alone up here, I really do,” he said. “We are teetering on the brink of annihilation, as a country, as a society. We have a cyber war on the horizon. And there is no cybersecurity specialist in this country who will disagree with me.”
“Trust me, I’m not getting any benefit from this. I’m getting flak from the right, from the left, from everywhere… but they have no concept of what it feels like to stand up and to trash the FBI, knowing that the FBI isn’t going to stand by idly,” he continued. “The government is corrupt with overbearing power, and this is what I’m fighting. And I certainly feel isolated, and I wonder why I’m doing this. But I have children and grandchildren. I have a wife. I have people that I love. And I love this country. And I cannot see it going down the tubes because of a paranoid, overreaching, corrupt government.”
We are teetering on the brink of annihilation, as a country, as a society. We have a cyber war on the horizon.
In the event the FBI is successful in this case, McAfee believes that “the American society is doomed.” McAfee openly challenges the FBI’s claims that this request would be limited to a single phone, convinced that the scope would continue to increase, moving on to other companies in the process. Of these companies, he feels that Google specifically would be the next to be targeted. However, if the FBI’s motivations are as they say, McAfee still doubts that they would be capable of securing any information they may receive.
“Even if the FBI keeps it secret, we’re still in big trouble. But they can’t keep it secret – it’s software,” McAfee said. “Last month, the FBI was hacked by a 15-year-old boy, who walked off with the names and addresses of every FBI agent, including undercover agents. Now, the kid was caught and is being prosecuted, but it’s too late. The data is already out in the wild. You cannot keep back doors secret. You can’t keep universal software keys secret. This has been proven over, and over, and over.”
One area in which many have struggled to make sense of this case involves the implications for the average citizen. According to McAfee, the exploitation of a weakness built for Apple’s existing software could expose every American to a variety of different invasions of privacy. One includes identity theft, particularly if the user engages in online banking or online shopping. However, there is a significantly more invasive way in which a security weakness could be exploited, and it would impact anyone with a phone that has weakened security.
“Someone could watch your daughter taking a shower if she takes her phone into the bathroom with her,” McAfee said. “Someone could watch you with your wife, or you with your husband, in the bedroom, if your phone is handy and nearby. We’re talking about monumental invasion into the privacy of the family, of the individual. The entire society.”
American society is doomed.
Continuing on the matter of privacy, and how it is utilized by the average American daily, McAfee used familiar relationships in order to explain the importance of privacy, comparing this with the conversations that we have with different types of people in everyday interactions.
“Every American citizen exercises privacy, unconsciously, hundreds of times per day. You’re in line at the grocery story, and you’re talking to the checkout clerk. Do you divulge the most intimate secrets of your life? No. You talk about the weather. Or perhaps the price of tomatoes. Why? Because those are the levels of privacy that you are willing to divulge to a stranger,” McAfee said. “When you’re talking to a casual acquaintance, you might divulge more. ‘I had a party last night and everyone was drunk. Cool.’ When you’re talking to a close friend, you might divulge even more. When you’re talking to a spouse, you might divulge everything in your life. Unless, perhaps, you are having an affair. Then you may choose not to divulge that. But this is what privacy means. Privacy means you decide when and what to divulge. Individually.”
We are an imperfect species, and privacy is that glue that allows society to function.
This is where McAfee sees the greatest risk – the mandatory, and potentially unknowing, sharing of personal details with total strangers, be it the government, foreign entities, or opportunistic hackers. Without privacy, McAfee believes society will be incapable of functioning.
“Privacy was created, secrets were created, in order to keep sanity in a society where all of us judge, where all of us have fear and doubt, where all of us have anger and hostility, as well as grace and love and compassion. We are an imperfect species, and privacy is that glue that allows society to function.”
McAfee took no time to consider his response to my final question, in which he was asked whether he felt there was room for compromise in this situation, or if one side must prevail entirely. In his opinion an FBI victory, in any capacity, is an overall failure.
“We can’t have compromise. Think about it. In a compromise, the FBI will get access to something that they do not have the right to access. I just pray that our Supreme Court has the wisdom, the intelligence, and the insight to see that the FBI is asking to bring us into a dictatorial and horrific system in which none of us want to live.”
Critics of McAfee claim that he “is batshit crazy. Undeniably brilliant, but batshit crazy,” that “he’s delusional if he thinks he’s going to somehow break AES,” and that he better prepare to eat a shoe because he doesn’t know how iPhones work.
While McAfee may currently be the most vocal critic of the FBI, he is not the only person to stand behind Apple in this matter. A number of major companies – many of them competitors of Apple – have filed briefs with the court ahead of a March 22 hearing, in which the original ruling will be reviewed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, also released a statement on the matter, warning that an FBI victory is “potentially a gift to authoritarian regimes, as well as to criminal hackers.”
Lizzy Finnegan is the Senior Editor for News and Reviews at The Escapist. She is also a 2016 Kunkel Award nominee.