John McAfee Takes on Internet Privacy with New App and a Call to Action

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From an “undisclosed location,” John McAfee addressed Toronto’s Digital Media Summit today via Skype. Along with being a pioneer in digital security, McAfee is known for being wanted by police in connection with the murder of an American ex-pat in Belize. As he describes it, he “ran afoul of government in 2012” and “has been underground ever since.”

While on the run, McAfee has been expressing concern about the meaning of Internet privacy in a world where technologies watch our every move.

“We have created a culture of technology which owns us, rather than us owning the technology. We live in a world where there’s no privacy, no security, [and] where it is much more economically viable to find out where you are, what you’re doing, and what you are buying, than it is to sell you something of value,” he said. “These are the facts of life and they need to change. ”

He has also been creating services based around the concept that users should be in control of what they divulge.

Last year, he announced “Decentral,” a device that creates small, private wireless networks with about a three-block radius that allows computers and mobile devices to communicate outside of the public internet and government surveillance.

This week, McAfee unveiled Chadder (a take on “Chatter”), a free secure messaging app that encrypts messages so that they are only decipherable to intended recipients, and not the servers and other intermediaries. McAfee describes it as “the most secure messaging app on the planet.”

Chadder for Android and Windows Phone are available, and the developers say an iOS version will come in a few weeks.

At DMS, McAfee stated, “Privacy and security are central to a sane society.” Of course, McAfee might have a particular interest in maintaining privacy. But he notes that even people under less scrutiny them himself should be able to express things privately that they don’t want exposed to others.

In an interesting juxtaposition, some of the presentations at DMS promoted the idea of collecting more customer data in order to market more efficiently, without discussing the ethical dilemma – from a user perspective – of collecting all this data.

For instance, earlier in the day Campbell Soup social media and digital marketing head Umang Shah characterized social media as primarily a tool for business and marketing. McAfee dismissed this notion as cynical, preferring to think of the internet as about people and communication.

And when asked if social marketing could be done in an ethical way, McAfee was skeptical that this would be possible, suggesting that social marketers with consciences should consider a career change. This sparked uneasy laughter from the audience, which was largely comprised of marketers.

But McAfee, a technologist, has hope that we can build systems and services that protect users. He said that MESH networks, which are considered a decentralized alternative to the public internet, are the “only hope for us.”

With news about government surveillance and large-scale privacy breaches among major corporations becoming commonplace, McAfee said that something has to be done now to restore privacy and security. Chadder and Decentral move towards this vision, but he is calling on others to take it upon themselves to choose solutions that take their lives back into their own hands.

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