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Tycoon: I gave bigwigs laptops stuffed with surveillance malware

By John Leyden

Posted in Security, 7th January 2013 15:04 GMT

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Infosec daredevil John McAfee claims he became a spymaster in Belize after giving laptops infected with espionage malware to police and government officials.

McAfee, who moved to the central American low-tax haven some years ago, further claimed he supervised a ring of 23 women and six men as operatives, and tasked them with striking up relationships with targets and extracting secrets.

The eccentric millionaire hatched the scheme after a crack Belizean cop squad raided one of his properties, shot one his dogs and seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in kit. The Gang Suppression Unit was searching for a supposed meth lab and guns but found nothing. No charges were brought but the incident put the founder of antivirus biz McAfee Inc at loggerheads with the authorities.

In a quest to exact revenge after receiving no apology for the bungled bust, McAfee to set himself up as a spymaster, as he explained in a lengthy blog entry [1] of his official blog:

I purchased 75 cheap laptop computers and, with trusted help, installed invisible keystroke logging software on all of them – the kind that calls home (to me) and disgorges the text files. It also, on command, turns on and off the microphone and camera – and sends these files on command.I had the computers re-packaged as if new. I began giving these away as presents to select people – government employees, police officers, cabinet minister’s assistants, girlfriends of powerful men, boyfriends of powerful women.

I hired four trusted people full time to monitor the text files and provide myself with the subsequent passwords for everyone’s email, Facebook, private message boards and other passworded accounts. The keystroke monitoring continued after password collection, in order to document text input that would later be deleted. So nothing was missed…

I next collected my human resources for the complex social engineering I would have to do. I arranged with 23 women and six men to be my operatives. Eight of the women were so accomplished that they ended up living with me. It was amazingly more efficient and they were easily convinced to check up on each other. One was so accomplished that she became a double agent and nearly got me killed.

The tech tycoon claimed he infiltrated two national telcos using his operatives in order to tap the phone lines of his enemies. He further claimed various social engineering tricks were put into play.

In all, McAfee reckons he set up an extensive spook network with tentacles into every aspect of life in Belize. By his own account, the malware maverick was looking for evidence of corruption to turn the tables on those who trashed his property.

But what he apparently found was details of extramarital affairs and far more disturbing information. He alleged data uncovered showed that officials were helping Hezbollah-aligned terrorists to get Belizean passports and identification cards.

Mostly this supposed intelligence came from electronic taps on immigration department computers but McAfee claims he had some human intelligence as well:

I had located an individual working in immigration who was trustworthy and willing to talk. I discovered that an average of eleven Lebanese males were given new identities each month. One month there were sixteen.

McAfee claims he sent one of his female operatives to befriend one of these Lebanese militants, who supposedly turned out to be sexually violent and intent on using Belizean papers to gain entry to the United States:

Belize is clearly the central player in a larger network whose goal is to infiltrate the US with individuals having links to terrorist organizations. What is different today from the wholesale Belizean passport selling of ten years ago, is that the false citizenships that are created for these men are coupled with a network of handlers designed to move the individuals, and their cargo, into the US

‘I’m not an idiot… the US government is letting the ricin plot happen’

McAfee goes on to accuse members of Hezbollah of establishing a training base in Nicaragua, south of Belize. The supposed terrorists formed links with the Zetas, the infamous Mexican drug cartel, and may be using deadly ricin from plants grown at the training camp. The Zetas, according to McAfee, smuggle the poisonous protein in return for advanced weaponry from Hezbollah:

I know all of this because I reassigned resources and for the past three months have had two people in Nicaragua that have made connections with the Hezbollah camp and I have three people in Mexico who have made connections with mid-level Zeta members. I will release no information at this point that will implicate these five people. Both the Hezbollah camp members and the Zeta organization, combined, have thousands of female connections. This small post will implicate no one.

The 67-year-old biz baron also accused a high-ranking Belizean security official of masterminding human trafficking and arranging the false passports for members of Hezbollah – and threw in an unsubstantiated allegation of another senior member of the government arranging a murder.

The elaborate tale of corruption and criminality reads like something from a John Le Carre spy novel, but El Reg‘s security desk suggests it’s more akin to ‪The Tailor of Panama‬ than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Either McAfee has stumbled upon one of the greatest conspiracies of recent times or it is possible his network of informants and agents are spinning an ever more elaborate story perhaps to keep the money from McAfee flowing.

The blog post, titled A Clear And Present Danger, suggests the British-American programmer is more of a fan of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan potboilers.

McAfee famously became the centre of Central America’s most high-profile manhunt in recent history late last year. The antivirus pioneer was named by police as a “person of interest”, but not a suspect, after his neighbour Gregory Faull was found dead in a pool of blood on the island of Ambergris Caye, Belize, in November.

McAfee went on the run with his 20-year-old girlfriend for three weeks before crossing the border to Guatemala. He was detained by the authorities soon after entry after his location was revealed by coordinates embedded in the metadata of a photograph published online by a Vice magazine journalist. McAfee claimed he faked a heart attack in order to buy enough time to appeal against his deportation back to Belize, and subsequently jetted off to Miami, US.

His antics on the run included developing various desperate disguises – such as blacking up with boot polish and sticking a tampon up his nose to pretend to a Guatemalan trinket salesman – and sending a look-alike over the Mexican border with a North Korean passport as a diversionary tactic while he slipped into Guatemala.

What happens when two almighty conspiracy theorists meet on air?

McAfee appeared on relentless conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ Infowars show at the weekend to talk about what Jones described as the “latest chapter in bizarre-o-world”. McAfee denied fabricating the Belize-Hezbollah yarn as a means to thwart possible attempts by Belize to obtain his extradition. He also denied the allegations were an elaborate prank*.

“This is not a joke,” he said. “My practical jokes do not lean towards the dangerous.”

The interview [2], which lasts about 35 minutes from the 48 minute mark, also features the most detailed account to date of McAfee’s flight from Belize. Apparently he waited for rain so that the army’s troops would be sitting in their cars rather than manning checkpoints on the route down from the Guatemalan border. The whole party stayed in a hotel overnight, in disguise, before making their way across the river to the border town of Livingstone in Guatemala.

McAfee said he planned to move to the American mid-West, a place where people work hard and “everyone is armed” and capable of defending themselves – and a place where “anyone from Hezbollah, for example, would stick out like a sore thumb”.

He added that he’d be “an idiot” to not consider the possibility that hit men would come after him.

“I’ve released routes and organisational links and names within the Belizean government that are protecting these people and handling these people. Of course I’d have to be concerned,” McAfee said. He alleged that “US government is letting the [ricin plot] happen” either “purposefully” or in furtherance of “wider goals”.

Jones, a talk-show host who said the 11 September 2001 attacks were an inside job, concluded that McAfee is either telling the truth, “is partially telling the truth and has become paranoid” or is “one of the best liars and storytellers”. ®


* McAfee earlier claimed that his extensive postings on an underground internet forum about the powerful effects of MDPV – a psychoactive drug better known as bath salts and touted as a stimulant with sexual arousal effects whose side-effects include paranoia and psychotic delusions – were just an elaborate joke [3].

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