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John McAfee

A tech genius who went off the rails

Canadian Press/Shutterstock

The American cybersecurity entrepreneur John McAfee, who committed suicide in a Barcelona jail on Wednesday at the age of 75, led an “extraordinary life that brought him vast wealth and infamy”, says Nick Allen in the Telegraph. The British-born maths graduate and LSD enthusiast once worked for Nasa. But in 1986, when the first big computer virus, called the Brain, swept across the US, he saw an opportunity. He set up an antivirus software company, McAfee Associates, which was so successful that he was able to sell his stake for $100m in 1994. A yoga studio and other software ventures followed, and all went well until 2008 when, almost overnight, the financial crash wiped out most of his fortune.

McAfee decamped to Belize, where he cultivated the “image of a shirtless, highly kidnappable new-age medicines kingpin”, says Helen Sullivan in The Guardian. He raved about herbal antibiotics and was often seen flanked by armed bodyguards, boasting about his “harem” of teenage girlfriends and accusing Belize’s government of victimisation. “I don’t want to be unkind to the gentleman,” said then PM Dean Barrow, “but I believe he is… bonkers.” In a profile for Wired magazine, Joshua Davis described watching McAfee play Russian roulette. “It is a real gun. It has a real bullet in one chamber,” McAfee said before pulling the trigger. He fled the country in 2012, when he was implicated in – but never charged with – the fatal shooting of his neighbour over the poisoning of McAfee’s four dogs.

Somewhat incongruously, he remained “an ardent defender of digital security”, says Sullivan. Now in Oregon, he posted an eye-popping YouTube video in 2013, “How to uninstall McAfee antivirus”, in which he lambasted his former company while snorting a white powder, firing a gun into a computer and being undressed by young women. It’s been watched more than 11m times.

In 2016 and 2020, McAfee found time to run for the US presidential nomination of a fringe libertarian party. It says something about his bizarre life that this amounts “to barely a footnote”, says Brian Barrett in Wired. So notorious was he by then that Intel, which had bought his old company for $7.7bn in 2010, took out an injunction forbidding him from uttering the word “McAfee” in the context of cybersecurity. In his final years he noisily championed cryptocurrencies, advocated minimal taxes and hung about with heavily armed shady types on megayachts.

His lawyer confirmed he had taken his own life, apparently by hanging, while awaiting extradition to the US on tax evasion charges. In a tweet last week, he wrote: “The US believes I have hidden crypto. I wish I did … I have nothing. Yet, I regret nothing.”