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'It will only get worse': Antivirus pioneer turned fugitive John McAfee sounds the alarm on privacy ahead of his appearance at an Aussie conference

Jack Derwin
  • McAfee Antivirus founder John McAfee has warned the world is at a tipping point, having morphed into something "beyond a surveillance state", in an interview with Business Insider Australia.
  • A libertarian, McAfee has launched a decentralised currency exchange called McAfeeDex, which he claims will allow trades to be entirely anonymous.
  • McAfee is running to become US President in the 2020 US Presidential elections, at the same time that he claims to be hiding out from the CIA.
  • McAfee is due to speak on privacy, freedom and technology at startup conference StartCon in Sydney later this month.

John McAfee is a busy man. The US Presidential hopeful says he is still on the run from one of the country's principal securities agencies, the CIA.

The one-time founder of McAfee anti-virus software – a venture that made him both a pioneer in the emerging field in the early '90s as well as multimillionaire – claims he's hiding out in an undisclosed location from similarly undisclosed tax evasion charges. He is unsurprisingly less than enthused about the prospect of ever-increasing surveillance.

"Our covert agencies, the CIA, NSA, the Secret Service, all the military and intelligence agencies literally want all your information. They get to pick and choose what we say. Information is their sport," he told Business Insider Australia down the end of a crackling line.

The bad connection – I assume a symptom of the measures he's taken to avoid detection by the US government – makes it hard to catch all of McAfee's words but his message on surveillance is crystal clear.

"It will just get worse and it has to be stopped," he said.

It's an alarming premonition, made only more so by recent developments in Australia, which have seen the government take a hardline stance on media and whistleblowers.

Earlier this year, police raided the Sydney offices of the ABC and the Canberra home of News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst. The same week, the Home Affairs office notified radio host Ben Fordham he was being investigated for a story he broke regarding boatloads of refugees leaving Australia. It was enough for the local New York Times bureau chief to suggest Australia had inadvertently morphed into "the most secretive democracy in the world".

READ MORE: Australian media companies have banded together to fight back against the government's attacks on journalists and whistleblowers

"I didn't know that about Australia," McAfee said when I bring it up but admits he's unsurprised given what's going on in the rest of the world. Surveillance and government interference has become the norm rather than the exception around the world, according to him.

"It used to be either that [agencies] would find a criminal and then get a court order to monitor phone calls, emails and everything else. Now they just monitor everyone all the time...this is a step way beyond a surveillance state."

McAfee is due to speak on privacy, freedom and technology at StartCon in Sydney later this month. In true form, he'll be appearing via videolink.

His relationships with governments and authorities could be described as tenuous at best. So too is the task of separating fiction from fact when it comes to his tangled life.

A dual British/American citizen, McAfee had been living in Belize until 2012 when his neighbour was shot dead. Refusing to answer questions raised by police, he fled the country, claiming it was part of a plot to extort, frame or kill him. In response, Prime Minister Dean Barrow called him "extremely paranoid and bonkers".

It's a distrust that characterised much of McAfee's life. It's also got him banking on cryptocurrency as the circuit breaker against big government and overreaching spy agencies.

"Cryptocurrency is changing the world in every respect. The blockchain on which it is based is immutable meaning there's no need for trust and meaning there's no government or greedy financiers meddling with it," he said.

"You're totally free. In fact, you could use that privacy to leave and not pay income taxes."

That's an appealing thought to McAfee, who believes such taxes to be illegal. It's no doubt a belief that hasn't endeared him to America's Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the US equivalent of the ATO. It's a message he's taking to the electorate as well, running in the 2020 US Presidential elections on the Libertarian Party ticket.

It's not just bluster either. Last month, McAfee launched his own decentralised currency exchange to allow users to trade digital tokens anonymously. But that's not to say he's in favour of all digital currencies.

"The wrong thing to do would be if a government builds its own crypto, and uses the best software in the world will be designed to monitor everything you do," McAfee said. "We need privacy, not more regulation, in this world."

"Cryptocurrencies will either free us or further enslave us depending on the choices that we make now."

That means that for McAfee his work – be it as a US President working from the Oval Office or a cryptocurrency pioneer working out of a Caribbean safe house – matters more now than ever.