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How an Eccentric Millionaire and a Conservative CEO are Saving us from Ourselves

I absolutely love it whenever the indomitable John McAfee, lately of McAfee Anti-Virus software, comes out with just about anything. And so should you.

The eccentric multi-millionaire surfaced a few years back with a completely not suitable for work video trolling the software that started his rise. I’m not going to link it here. Needless to say if you search YouTube for John McAfee, you will find it. The lovable, crazy wingnut is also apparently running for President of the US, where he’s in good, crazy company with the equally wingnut but definitely less lovable Mr. Trump.

So what’s our friend John up to? He’s being a privacy hero.


First Some Background

You may have heard that Apple is running afoul of the FBI. The clash arose from the San Bernardino shooting incident and the FBI’s search for information on the shooter’s iPhone. In an unprecedented move, Apple reached out to the public in an open letter, explaining that the FBI was using ancient legislation to try force Apple to create an access point into the OS of that single iPhone. Apple refused to comply, stating that opening a door to one iPhone iOS is basically impossible without simultaneously creating an opportunity for hackers to access any hardware running iOS using the same back door.

The FBI, and now the Department of Justice, are sifting through stacks of vague legislation to find a legal route to force Apple to comply. At this point, anyone interested in maintaining the security and privacy of the information they store on their device running iOS should be a little bug eyed at the government’s heavy handed tactics. We store a lot of data on our phones and the government has apparently given up any pretence of respecting user privacy.

At least the NSA tried to be a little cloak and dagger about it all. Apparently the government no longer sees the point of being subversive. Both government agencies are employing the usual scare tactics of terrorist threat to force Apple into making swiss cheese out of their firmware.


Back to our lovable Wingnut

John McAfee is of course a lover of internet security, as the inventor of one of the original antivirus systems. He’s also wonderfully bombastic and big headed about his capabilities and the capabilities of the team of first rate hackers he has in his employ. As such, he has offered to decrypt the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, free of charge, so that Apple doesn’t have to create the dangerous back door the FBI is requesting.

It’s all very marvellous, super-hero style, protecting our liberty sentiment. McAfee has put his offer in writing and given his crack team 3 weeks to get the job done. You can read his letter here.

But for the moment, let’s bypass the theatrics – is it even possible?

John is talking about social engineering a way into the single iPhone without damaging its firmware. Whether this is possible is anyone’s guess. Social engineering is less code hacking and more people hacking. The goal is to find a way through the weakest point of defence in any computer software – the person using or building it. In order to find a way into the phone, the hackers need to find a way into the confidence of someone who could potentially provide information leading to an access code or password that will decrypt the info the FBI claims will be there. Wiki article here.

All John needs is for the FBI to hand over the phone. Which, given John’s somewhat sketchy legal past, most pundits say is as likely as convincing a ‘world class’ hacker to work at the FBI.


Why it’s Important

You may not need any other reason than to hear the delightfully loony John McAfee blow his own horn yet again. I know I don’t. But there are good reasons to pay attention to this battle.

One is the aforementioned threat to our personal privacy. There an estimated 101 Million iPhone users in the US alone who are using that device for almost everything, from Apple Pay-ing in stores and online, to storing passwords and emails, to pics and videos that in the wrong hands could wreak havoc on your personal and professional life, even if you aren’t Jennifer Lawrence.

The other is the bigger security picture for all of us. We don’t really get cyber security. Not in the same way that we get the need for police officers, for border security, for airline screening, for security cameras, locks on our doors and alarms on our cars.

Despite the incredibly heated rhetoric bouncing around this American election season, the US doesn’t understand the threat that insufficient cyber security poses to everyone’s wellbeing. Cybersecurity doesn’t even rank in the top 20 election issues. This is despite cyber attacks posing real threats to us, not on the internet, but on the outernet, (also known as Real Life). From crashing planes to power outages, from communications disruption to a hundred other actual life threatening possibilities, cyber threats are real.

So let’s all applaud John McAfee for trying to protect us in any way he can from another breach in our security. After all, he might not be the next president, but at least he knows what the next president will be up against.


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