As you may have heard, antivirus pioneer John McAfee has become a fugitive from justice. Now wanted for murder in his adopted home of Belize, he has been accused of manufacturing drugs and consorting with criminals and underage girls, if we're to believe a feature article on Gizmodo. It's a bizarre story, particularly for me, since McAfee played a key role in my early career.
In the late 1980s, I got to know McAfee. I sought him out because widely published tales of his adventures fighting computer viruses inspired me. McAfee was the first recognizable face of the antivirus industry, a bold entrepreneur who became a multimillionaire by creating a single executable that could scan for and clean multiple computer viruses at once. He's a big part of why I decided to make my career in the computer security industry.
[ Sit back and relax as Robert X. Cringely recounts true tales of tech execs gone wild, including the aforementioned McAfee. | Keep up with key security issues with InfoWorld's Security Central newsletter. ]
Getting the bug
Back then, as a teenager, I read Ross Greenberg's book "Flu-Shot," which detailed Greenberg's cat-and-mouse game with hackers -- and ultimately the development of his highly successful Virex-PC antivirus program. I was hooked. I decided that I, too, wanted to fight hackers and malware, although at the time I didn't program and knew almost nothing about computers.
I started hanging around computer virus discussion lists on an early precursor of the Internet known as FidoNet. McAfee, nearly a national hero at the time, occasionally participated in the discussions. I wanted to learn more about viruses, so I wrote McAfee asking if I could have some to play with.
McAfee quickly said no, explaining he couldn't send me viruses because he couldn't be sure I wouldn't do bad things with them. On the other hand, if I sent him some new computer viruses, it would be proof that I could already spread them if I chose to -- and he would let me participate in a small, private world where different computer virus experts exchanged malware and discussed what they did. He also suggested that I learn assembly language so that I could disassemble any viruses coming my way.
I took those marching orders seriously. I started reading every book I could on PC internals, including "The Peter Norton Programmer's Guide to the IBM PC." In about two weeks, I knew enough assembly language to take apart small programs that I downloaded from FidoNet. But I still didn't have any viruses.
Exchanging malware with McAfee
A few weeks later I heard about a large national company that had been attacked by the viruses Pakistani Brain, Jerusalem, Cascade, and Lehigh. I called to offer my assistance. After all, the research I had done made me a computer virus "expert," just without any real experience (I saw no reason to bring that up). Pretty soon I was sitting in a large corporate boardroom with an executive vice president, her staff, and official-looking NDA documents I had recently printed out. Mostly I remember quaking in my seat as I bluffed my way through the meeting.
I was exhilarated when the company handed me my first infected floppy disk. I promised to take a look at the virus and notify the group if I found a known variant. They mentioned that the local university was also fighting computer viruses, so an hour later I showed up there. Within the span of a few hours, I had 10 new computer viruses in my hot little hands.