Thrilled, I headed back home, uploaded my viruses to McAfee, and asked to become one of the computer virus insiders. To my surprise, McAfee took my virus samples and said no once again. He still couldn't trust me. Defiantly, I typed something that said to the effect that either he could work with me or I would become one of the best antivirus researchers in the world without him.
Truth be told, I was a clueless 19-year-old with more dreams than talent. It was all bravado. But strangely, my healthy ego must have reminded McAfee of himself because he relented and brought me into his fold. I could send newly found viruses his way, and he would submit virus samples to me for analysis.
Of course, my only "payment" was gaining entrance to a specialized world that few people on the outside could comprehend, much less participate in. But I was fighting the bad guys just as I had hoped. By day, I was a boring certified public accountant, but in my spare time I talked to some of the smartest computer people around the world, disassembled viruses, and worked with the world's best-known computer virus hunter, John McAfee. I was in heaven.
I disassembled and researched viruses for the newly lunched PC Antivirus Research Foundation and passed along relevant findings to McAfee. At first the work was easy. New viruses came in at the rate of a few per month, but the numbers steadily increased until we were getting dozens a day. My "hobby" was taking up more hours than my full-time job. It was a passionate obsession. I left my job as an accountant to become a dedicated computer security expert.
By this time, John was running his own company, McAfee Associates, which would go on to make him an industry figure -- a rich one, at that. I asked for a job. Unfortunately, he said no yet again. I was upset because of all the free time I spent helping him, but this time my bravado did not win out; he already had a very talented team of programmers and virus analyzers. Still, we parted as friendly acquaintances and would correspond with each other when the need arose.
In March 1992, Newsweek magazine did an article on the Michelangelo virus, which was erasing hard drive data and causing panic around the world. It included quotes from both McAfee and me. During the same period, I had learned about a new polymorphic encryption engine for viruses called Dark Avenger's Mutating Engine (DAME). It was capable of producing viruses that were nearly impossible to identify accurately. Actually, infected file copies could be identified, but it took such twists and turns to do so that the false-positive rate was unacceptably high. This was not something McAfee wanted the world to know.
I had told the Newsweek reporter that instead of the world worrying about Michelangelo virus that we should be more worried about DAME, and I shared the new challenges. The reporter called John to confirm, and she later told me he became very upset that someone had revealed this secret. He wanted to know her source, but she never named me.
Years later a freelance journalist asked me to confirm whether or not John McAfee had ever paid for people to write computer viruses. I said no, but that if my memory served me correctly, John had once offered to pay for people to send him computer viruses (so he could collect signatures for his new VirusScan program), and unexpectedly, people had written new viruses and sent them to him for payment. John never did make the payments and retracted the ask.